Monday, July 25, 2011

Tales From The Bush

The place was Kruger National Park, South Africa, and the plan was a five-day safari with two days of driving, three days of hiking, and plenty of extra batteries for picture taking. We began with Africa's second most dangerous animal--the hippopotamus. But don't worry; we were far away from the hippos. We had come across a ranger who gave us permission to exit our vehicle and sit on the rocks with the hippo pools at a safe but enjoyable distance. They snapped their jaws while we just snapped pictures. This guy was being a good hippo and posing nicely--I call him Humphrey. (Africa's most dangerous animal is the mosquito, by the way.)
The continuation of our drive through Kruger gave us a great view of an elephant--we had come across an elephant-shaped blob in the bush before, but this one was up close and personal, gregariously munching on a nearby tree. I feel the need to add, since I used the word "gregarious", that elephants are aggressive when defending themselves, and will charge if they feel threatened. They are just trying to scare away what they see as a threat, though, and most charges are mock charges, where they make themselves scary until you drive off. Since they are bigger than an SUV, you high-tail it out of there if they start to look like this.

An elephant's top priority is to protect the young ones, such as this cute little guy hiding behind his mom.
We stayed at the Pretorioskop camp, where we grilled our dinner (we did not catch and kill it ourselves, although I'm sure Caleb would've been happy to oblige) and went to sleep at the very late hour of eight thirty. It gets dark around 5 here, and Kruger is so fantastically dark at night, that it makes for a lovely night's sleep. Besides, the stars are incredible--you can see the Milky Way as if it was a cloud. We spent the last of the evening finding constellations that look like giraffes and cape buffalos. Unfortunately stars are like ghosts; they can't be captured on film unless you have a special camera. 
The next day brought about new wonders of the animal kingdom. We have seen so many giraffes, but I never get tired of those guys. They're like the Ryan Stiles of the animal kingdom--very lanky, and laid-back despite their loud dress. Plus, incredibly fun to watch.
We had seen some intriguing creatures, but after so many impala even I get ready to see a predator. Kruger park boasts around 2,000 lions, 2,000 hyenas, 950 leopards, 350 African wild dogs (an endangered species,) and 250 cheetahs. However, the park itself is huge, and we only explored the southern area, so the carnivores were not as easy to find as they seemed. Bbut as the sun was beginning to set and we were on our way back to the camp for a guided evening drive, we came across a lone hyena walking serenely in the bush.
Hyenas get kind of a bad rap—they are certainly less majestic-looking than lions, but they are actually very helpful to the environment. There are a lot of animals in the park, and all animals die eventually, but you really don’t see many skeletons or remains because of the clean-up crew: the scavengers, least selective of these being the hyena. They will eat anything, and their powerful jaws give them the ability to crack bones, after which the bones decay more quickly.
On our night drive, we expected to see some other nocturnal hunters, and we armed ourselves with jackets and cameras and arrived at the vehicle early to get good seats. In Kruger, there are camps with restrooms, as well as other designated areas where it's okay to leave your vehicle. Everywhere else, you must stay in the car at all times to avoid a potential hazard. This being said, forty-five minutes into our three hour drive, the most likely intoxicated folks in the back felt the need to harass the driver about their inexplicably full bladders. The entire drive was full of these complaints until the driver had to pull over. One man said: "I'll give twenty rand to the first person to find a toilet!" which was followed by another man saying: "I'll give a hundred to whoever knocks that guy out." After all that, all we saw were common duikers. 
The next day, we were glad to be starting our hike through the wilderness. It was time for some serious safari. We met our group at around three in the afternoon, climbed into a big safari jeep and set off for the bush. Our guides’ names were Moses and Rangana, and they had been working in the park for ten and twelve years. We enjoyed a meal cooked by the camp chef, Johann, then sat around a fire and listened to Moses’ and Rangana’s stories and advice on what to do if an animal charged. We went to bed early, and at five a.m. we woke up to the sound of Johann knocking on our doors. It was time to begin our adventure. We were being driven to the bush where we would continue on foot, and soon after we left the camp, what did we see in the middle of the road but a cheetah. As you may remember, cheetahs are even fewer in the park than the endangered wild dogs, and they prefer open areas in the central part of the park, as opposed to the lightly wooded south. Needless to say, Caleb’s fervent wish to see the fastest land animal didn’t look like it would be fulfilled, but here was a cheetah who stared at us for some minutes before slowly walking out of sight.

The hike consisted of a morning walk and an evening walk, the morning walk being five hours long, with a very pleasant break for snacks in the middle. The first animals we saw on foot were white rhinos, which are apparently less aggressive than black rhinos. Moses told us that they have a saying in his culture: “If you even think about a black rhino, climb a tree.” Our guides told us how to differentiate between black and white rhinos by their appearance, behavior, footprints, and, of course, their dung.
From a distance, you can tell a white rhino from a black rhino if they are running away from predators, Rangana said. The white rhinos would run behind the babies, since they prefer open areas and therefore must protect the young ones from behind. Black rhinos run in front of the babies because they prefer wooded areas and therefore must clear the way so that the little ones can get through. “It’s like black and white people,” Rangana explained, “we carry our children on our backs, and you push them in front in a pram (stroller).”
Moses and Rangana spotted everything from elephants so far away they looked like small rocks to tiny holes in the ground, and they could tell by the shape and size what created them. They also told us about different plants, such as the lipstick bush, which gives a red hue to the lips if you chew the roots.
The next day, we came upon the skull and bones of a buffalo which had been killed by lions (not even hyenas can clean up everything.) I was a little worried about seeing a kill while at the park, and thought I would be terribly creeped out by any remains. But over the years, and especially during this trip I have come to a healthy understanding of the "circle of life." Buffalo gotta graze, lions gotta eat. It's really amazing the intricate structure in nature--it's not as if God just threw everything together, but He made it so that carnivores control herbivore populations which, if they got out of control would destroy so much vegetation that they couldn't survive. So carnivores are necessary to the balance of nature as well as aesthetically pleasing.
 Have you ever seen pictures of tribal people dancing around with skulls of animals in front of their faces? That's another thing that has lost its creepiness for me. When we were all taking pictures and looking at the bones with solemn fascination, Moses did not shy away but grabbed the buffalo skull, held it up, galloped around and said: "Look! I'm a buffalo!"

It was quite amusing and broke the austere mood.

For our evening hike, we went to see some bushman paintings which may have been over two hundred years old, and then hiked up a mountain for the sunset. On the way, someone in our group saw what he thought was a cat, and we searched through binoculars but couldn't see it. Caleb also caught a glimpse of it, and we were hoping to get a better look. We didn't catch up with the mysterious cat, but enjoyed a breathtaking sunset and headed back to the jeep by the last of the daylight. Happy with our experiences but still keeping a wary eye out for lions, we headed back to camp. Then I saw the outline of a head--a big head, with pointed ears. Moses and Rangana had told us not to shout, because it would scare the animals, but to snap our fingers if we saw anything. I was snapping like crazy. Finally the woman in front of me, who had also seen the outline exclaimed: "Cat cat cat!" We stopped and backed up to find that the cat was still there--and it was a leopard. Leopards are difficult to see because of their shy, solitary natures and surprisingly apt camouflage, but there he was, just sitting there among the trees. Moses and Rangana said that he was probably waiting to cross the road, or else he would have run off when he saw us.
This beautiful guy was the icing on our safari cake.
It's been a wonderful trip; there’s so much more I wish I could include, but as it is I’ve been working on this entry off and on for two days! Tomorrow Caleb’s and my flight leaves at five p.m., and we’ll be home on Wednesday. I’m so glad I was able to have this experience, and if you’re interested in hearing more, don’t hesitate to ask! Thanks for reading!
-Geek In Mozambique


Friday, July 15, 2011

Mr. Ray, Scientist

That scuba certification is not for sissies. Last Monday, my dad, Caleb and I set out for Ponta Do Ouro to do some diving. It was supposed to take three hours to get there, and apparently half of it was on a smooth road, and half was over sandy dunes. When we found ourselves on a bumpy dirt road, we thought we had come to the bad road—as it turns out, there was only another even bumpier, dirtier road to greet us after that. When we finally arrived in Ponta Do Ouro, we were glad to get to our hotel, get some dinner, and go to sleep. We arrived at what looked like a campground.

            “I have your rooms ready,” said the manager. But our “rooms” turned out to be tents, and they did not provide the best of protection against the sound of drunken revelers outside talking and singing as loudly as possible in a combination of English, Portuguese, and an unknown language. The next day, we found some lodging in a log cabin village where we were able to sleep better. But before that, it was time for our first pool session. The session began with twenty short laps in a sixty-four degree (Fahrenheit) pool, followed by eight minutes of treading water, followed by two minutes of treading water with no hands. After we put on our wet suits things got a little more pleasant as we learned some skills at the pool's bottom. The next day we had our first dive, and the sea was warm compared to the pool, but from the time we began to descend, things started getting sticky. I couldn't descend, but kept bobbing to the surface, and Caleb was having trouble clearing his ears. After descending, it was downright scary. It's truly a different world underwater--you look around and at first all you see is blue. The other divers looked like aliens--I felt extra sorry for Nemo for when he was scooped out of the sea by a scuba diver. After a short lunch break, we had another pool session, this time in an even colder pool, around fifty-nine degrees. It was so miserably cold that our instructor, Siobhan, cut it short, deciding to go over some of the skills in the ocean the next day. We went back to our room, cold and dejected, wondering if this whole scuba certification was worth it. Caleb was having trouble equalizing his ears underwater, and we were all exhausted. The next day, we woke up begrudgingly. We had two dives that day, and on the first one, Caleb couldn't clear his ears and had to return to the boat. The rest of us descended, and our instructor told us using signs that he was on the boat. We started with the skills we had missed in the pool, and they came much easier in the ocean today--since we had already been on one dive, the sea was much more familiar and we were able to enjoy the fish. I had better control of my movement this time, and the skills went smoothly.
 Then things got interesting. Siobhan had told us that the reason she had gotten into diving was because she loves sharks; so when I saw her pointing excitedly to something behind me, I took a big gulp. Surely a great white was swimming up ready to eat me in one bite. But I turned around, and what did I find but a huge manta ray--one of my favorite sea creatures only after the blue whale--swimming just meters away from us. He had to be eighteen to twenty feet across, and there were several remoras swimming underneath him. He swam as if in flight, graceful and beautiful in his black-and-white glory. I floated there, staring in awe and thinking of Mr. Ray from "Finding Nemo."
After we surfaced, all the divers with us were raving about it. I had heard one woman ask if manta rays liked the reef we were going to, and to her disappointment, she was informed that they did not. You can imagine her excitement when one actually swam right above us!
            “And you new divers,” she exclaimed, “you’re so lucky to have seen a manta on your second dive!” Oh, yes, we were. Caleb was able to catch a glimpse of the ray by snorkeling, and although he opted out of the second dive, he did take and very easily pass the final exam, so if he wants to get certified later, all he has to do is complete two more ocean dives. There was a lot more involved in scuba certification than I thought, but it was well worth it.  

Sunday, July 10, 2011

I Saw a Kudu--What Did You Do?

Yesterday Dad, John and I went to Nelspruit, South Africa to buy a television. We heard about a place called "Chimp Eden," a chimpanzee sanctuary near Nelspruit, and decided to go see the chimpanzees. We also saw some impala, kudu, and sable antelope along the way. It's so fun to see those guys randomly standing around rather than at a zoo--I really didn't think it would be that different before taking this trip.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

American Indians

I have just settled down after a very long shower, and I can still smell the smoke from the bonfire.
Caleb and I were invited to go with Nick and Nina Gazel, who are staying with their father over the summer, to help cook a meal at a children's home, so today we met at their house and headed to the orphanage from there. It was a home for boys, so there were some thirty to fifty boys there, and only two girls who lived in houses on the property with their parents. It was difficult to understand the technicalities because of the language barrier, but not difficult to see the warm welcome the children displayed for us.
Caleb was worried about the language barrier before we arrived, but within five minutes of being there he was already playing keep away with the boys. They also had a basketball court and a few guitars, so Caleb was right at home.
The two girls, Esther, who is eleven, and Christina, who is eight gave Nina and I a tour, and talked to Nina about what they were learning in school and the words they knew in other languages. The girls were very interested in languages; there were several German volunteers who had taught them German words, and they asked Nina and I how to say things in English and Spanish. Portuguese has a lot of the same roots as Spanish so I was able to get the gist of most conversations; but the biggest way around the language barrier (other than Nina's Portuguese) was not my Spanish, but Esther's English! Both girls were had a refreshing eagerness to learn, and a keen intellect to go along with it.
After our tour, Nina and the girls and I played basketball with some of the boys, and then the girls fixed our hair. Then it was time to barbeque. While we cooked, some of the permanent workers at the home prepared a bonfire and the children pulled up chairs around it and played the guitars or bongo drums and chatted while they waited. They were having a farewell party for the German and Swiss volunteers, and they called out each volunteer to do a dance around the fire--it was really funny because they were all just goofing off and doing these silly dances. After the meal, the kids lined up and each received a ball of sticky, yeasty bread dough, which they wrapped around sticks and roasted over the fire.
It was great just to be able to take care of these kids for a few hours, enjoy their presence and not care if my hair got messed up or all my makeup rubbed off. The only problem is that I have a really big zit in the middle of my forehead right now; I was talking to Esther and she pointed to my forehead and asked if I was Indian.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Geek In Cape Town

July 4, 2011
We just arrived in Maputo this afternoon after a week in Cape Town, and I am enjoying the first steady internet supply of the trip. We've had a great time in South Africa, where the weather is cool, the mountains are flat, and the vegetarian cuisine is bountiful.

My dad, Caleb and I began our journey on Sunday, June 26 at 7 am, and after one delay and a total of thirty seven hours, arrived at our hotel in Cape Town, South Africa and met up with my dad's friend John.
The main attraction in Cape Town is Table Mountain, a huge mountain with a naturally flat top so that it looks like a table. On Thursday, we went to the top of the mountain in a cable car, and enjoyed the incredible view. Caleb was constantly snapping photos, and we got some excellent pictures of the landscape. 
Earlier the same day, we went to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, and even though it's winter here, it was still filled with beautiful plants and very entertaining sculptures.

Caleb was forced into an arranged marriage to an unappealing woman.

July first was a full day--my calendar is totally covered in pen where I jotted down what happened. It was actually the warmest day yet, so it was an interesting coincidence that this was the day we chose to see the African penguins at Boulder Beach. They were lying around, since I suppose it was a bit hot for them, and at first it was sort of depressing because we thought some of them were dead, but when a couple of ducks waddled into their territory, they hopped to attention!
Next, we decided to go to Cape Point National Park for a long hike up a mountain for some more great views. On our way there, we saw a sign with an exclamation point in the center, and underneath, the word “baboons.” I thought the sign was funny and hoped to see a baboon, but didn’t expect much. But as we rolled down the left side of the street, more signs came into view. “Please do not feed the baboons;” “baboons are dangerous and attracted to food.”  When someone spotted one, we pulled over to take pictures, and very soon began to notice more and more! There were more than six baboons in our sight, and they were fascinating to watch.
After Cape Point, we were faced with a decision: go back to Cape Town, or stay in the little town of Hermanus for an opportunity to go whale watching the next day. Of course, whale watching was very appealing, but it meant we needed a cheap place to stay. This is where you get one of those situations where someone says "we'll laugh about this someday." The innkeeper was Rina, a very friendly Afrikaner woman who, when we arrived, showed us the room and asked if it was okay. Shivering, we gave our approval--it wasn't big or ritzy, but it would do fine. She gave us a tour of the whole place, a little place made up mostly of patio; I guess it must have had about three or four rooms including ours. We finally had to ask: "is the room heated?" "Ah," she replied, "well, there was a gas heater, but we were afraid that people would die in there with the heater on. Would you like a hot water bottle for the lady?" I guess there was a gas leak or something, but needless to say I accepted the hot water bottle. With all the blankets Rina so graciously provided, it wasn't so bad.
Saturday's whale watching excursion found us on the tumultuous seas without a whale in sight. We were out for about two hours, and the wind and rain were dreadful. The boat was tossed around so much that those on the outer deck got soaked and seasickness was experienced by the majority of the passengers. I did see a whale spout, but it was mostly, as my dad said, more wave watching than whale watching.  This is the most whale we saw.

 Caleb has decided not to shave for the duration of this trip, and wants my dad to do the same. When my dad warned him that he was planning to shave his beard on Tuesday, Caleb pointed to his wily scrap-tee. "Do you think I think this looks good?" He demanded. "This is not a fashion statement, it's about being a man in the wild."
By the end of the trip, they will both look like this guy!

To conclude this post, I'd like to note a couple of cool things about our South African experience:
South Africa has great food, vegetarian and otherwise. At almost every restaurant we’ve been to, there has been a vast selection of different animals you can eat, such as ostrich, warthog, kudu, or springbok, but there are also more options (such as spanikopita-type dishes in filo pastry, caprese pizza, and excellent seafood) for lacto-ovo-pescetarians like myself.

There's more than one way to flush a toilet. The toilets have two buttons to flush them, one bigger than the other, so that you can use less water or more water if you need to. I had heard about this phenomenon in other countries, but I was filled with a very geek-ish delight at the reality.
Look what's crossing the road! Instead of the occasional squirrel or possum, you might see the occasional baboon or antelope. This guy might be a female eland.