Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Wall-less Wonder

July 25, 2012

          Last Friday, we left Mozambique and entered the last absolute monarchy in Africa—that’s right—Swaziland. But I’m not writing this to talk about politics (although it was very interesting to see the photos of King Mswati III and Queen Mother Ntombi at almost every public place we visited); I’m writing mostly to talk about the interesting and lovely animals we encountered on our visits to Mkhaya Game Reserve and Hlane Royal National Park.
          Mkhaya is a reserve which specializes in endangered species; right now they have a breeding program going on for both the roan and sable antelope, and if you love rare antelopes like me, that is pretty exciting! Unfortunately, those guys haven’t been integrated into Mkhaya’s general population yet, so visitors aren’t able to see them. When we arrived at Mkhaya, the entrance was marked only by one small sign and nothing was to be seen except a few non-functioning cars and a tiny concrete building. We did see a promising-looking ranger, however, and when we asked him if we were in the right place, he told us that we would follow his four-wheeler to a building called the farmhouse, where we could sign our paperwork and leave our car behind. When we arrived, the first thing we saw in front of the large farmhouse was a huge display holding more than 30 rhinoceros skulls. Upon reading the information posted nearby, we discovered that they represented only a small portion of those rhinos lost to poaching in recent years. The information also boasted, however, that poaching is now illegal in Swazilandoffenders can face 5-15 years in prison—and the rhino populations are on the rise.
          After looking around a bit and signing some papers, we grabbed our backpacks and climbed into the high safari jeep along with one other guest. He was American as well, and quite the rhino enthusiast, so when we saw a mother and baby white rhino napping very close to the side of the road, he was quite excited. But before that, we had stopped because our guide had seen a choice opportunity to talk about poop. He got out of the jeep to tell us the difference between the dung of black and white rhinos—but of course, our party already knew, because of our three-day hike at Kruger last year. Black rhinos are browsers and therefore eat twigs and leaves, and white rhinos are grazers, which eat grass, and black rhinos cut the twigs at a forty-five degree angle when eating—this is the angle of their teeth and also their hooked lip, which is one of the traits that can be used to identify them from the wide-lipped white rhino. When our game-drive companion overheard us discussing the 45 degree angle found in the black rhino’s waste and then heard our guide confirm the fact, he said: “Wow, you guys are veterans. I mean, you literally know your crap*!” I usually try not to talk about poop in my posts, but I just couldn’t pass up a chance to brag about my rhino-fact prowess.
*clean version

When we arrived at the camp, we had a nice lunch waiting for us, and there were several nyala and guinea fowl who are gentle enough (and plentiful enough) to roam freely in the camp. Nyala are actually a somewhat rare antelope, but in Mkhaya, they are even more common than impala. In fact, they are so common that those of the guests at the lunch table that day who weren’t vegetarians were having nyala stew.
          After lunch, we decided to check out our house. I’ve included a picture so that you can see what a beautiful place it is—fluffy beds fitted with the deluxe kind of mosquito nets (that is, those with a square frame), and a rustic feel. So rustic, in fact, that you get a great view of the bush from . . . well, anywhere. A couple of posts ago I mentioned that you need to ask if a place has hot water, a toilet, and electricity.  You also should ask if it has walls.

          On our evening drive, however, we found that it was all worth it. As soon as we set out, we saw a curious sight in the road—I thought at first that it was a snake skin, and it was also guessed that it might be an electric wire, since Mkhaya has several electric fences to control which animals are in which parts of the park. Upon further inspection, however, we saw that it was a long chain of caterpillars! I am not usually looking for insects on a game drive, but I thought it was extremely interesting to see so many of these guys following each other.

Between Mkhaya and Kruger, we have seen a lot of white rhinos—and they are endangered, so we have been lucky to have had so many encounters, but the real prize is the elusive black rhino. During our drive, we saw him far away and didn’t think we were getting any closer. Still, we felt happy that we had seen him at all, and we continued with our drive, photographing the beautiful tsessebe; they are the fastest antelope species, reaching speeds of up to 80 kph (about 50 mph).

          Later, however, we saw another jeep stopped, and we knew something good was nearby. It turned out to be our black rhino from before, but at a much closer range. We relished the opportunity to take some photos, and eventually the rhino became curious. Rhinos have very poor eyesight, but excellent hearing and sense of smell, so he came sniffing up to us until he was only a few feet from my camera lens. All I could think about as I leaned back and continued to snap pictures was Moses saying last year: “If you even think about a black rhino, climb a tree.” Eventually, though, he lost interest and sauntered back to his far more interesting leaves.
          When we had almost reached the camp, we caught sight of this hyena. In Mkhaya, there are no lions, leopards, cheetahs or wild dogs, so the only predators are jackals and hyenas, with hyenas being the top predator. Although hyenas often hunt in packs, those at Mkhaya tend to be solitary and rarely hunt at all, since they are capable of surviving solely as scavengers. With the abundance of food and no competition, this guy seemed fat and happy. The dinner at Mkhaya was very nice, and was followed by chatting around the bonfire and then heading off to bed at an early hour. The park has sections so that the hyenas can’t get into the camp. They are quite loud, and their laughter could be heard from the wall-free house, but the real problem was the fact that it was freezing! We had plenty of extra blankets, and after it was all over with, I felt pretty warm—I couldn’t move, but I was warm.
          The next day, we went on a morning game drive, during which we encountered what looked like a herd of wildebeest with two unicorns in their company. They turned out, however, to be albino juvenile wildebeest.
We also took a bush walk, and we came across a lone male white rhino who, according to our guide, was sniffing in search of a female. But what entered his nostrils was the smell of humans, and he became quite curious. We crouched down to make ourselves look unintimidating, since prey animals only charge if threatened; the best advice for the bush is to not look like a predator to a prey animal and to not look like prey to a predator. I’ve included a photo which shows the rhino and our guide so you can sort of get an idea of how close he was—after he got closer than that, I stopped taking pictures for fear of agitating him. He soon decided, though, that we were harmless and continued his quest for the ladies.

We also encountered this lovely scene during our walk—a crash of eight white rhinos and two buffaloes. They were quite relaxed, and we enjoyed the view for a while before sneaking off. That night, we saw some lovely animals on our evening drive, but one of the most interesting things was not what we saw, but what we heard. Most people know that hyenas make a quite creepy laughing sound, but shortly after we noticed a hyena hooting (that’s another sound they make), we heard, from another part of the park, what sounded almost—but not quite—like human screams. We learned that this is the sound black-backed jackals make, and together with hyenas, they are an unsettling but interesting duo!

          The next day, we went for a final morning drive at Mkhaya, had breakfast, and headed to Hlane Royal Game Reserve. This reserve was the king’s private hunting ground before it opened to the public, and, in a “king of the jungle” kind of symbolism, it is famed for its lions. After we arrived, we headed to the place we were staying for the night (we were relieved to see that it had walls), and after having some lunch, we went on a guided evening drive. Almost immediately after entering the part of the park which has lions, we saw three beautiful lionesses. This one was basking in the fading sun, having already had her share, and the other two were hiding behind a bush nervously defending their kill. One of them, when she heard the engine of our car, picked up the entire slab of meat and trotted a few kilometers away so she could eat in peace. After we left the lions, we came across this lovely herd of elephants and enjoyed them as the sun set.
          There are so many things that I want to tell you about, but there’s just so much to tell! So I'll end here by saying that on Monday, we headed back to Maputo and on Tuesday I had my final Portuguese lesson for the summer.
          Tomorrow, we depart for London, England to join Caleb for a week, and although I am quite sad that my trip to Mozambique is drawing to a close, I’m very excited about London! 
-Geek in Mozambique

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