First week here
03.07.2011 - 10.07.2011 10 °C
I still can’t believe I’m here; it’s been such an amazing week! I don’t know why I was so worried about coming; I’ve loved every minute so far and am learning so much! Sunday today, our first full day off, and everyone is just chilled out and lounging around, except Sarah who is doing a workout video!
The bus journey to Phalaborwa was long but had nice scenery. I was sat next to an old lady and she would randomly speak Afrikaans to me and I would say something in English and it took her ages to realise I wasn’t South African! At one point a guinea fowl flew into the road, straight into the windscreen, shattering it, but the bus driver just carried on after swearing a bit. The bus driver and his assistant were really friendly and took me to a Spar when we reached Phalaborwa and then to the B&B as it’s the same one they stay in. I stayed in Daan and Zena’s B&B, had a really nice big room with TV and an ensuite.
After a massive 3 part breakfast that was prepared for me, I was collected by Joe, one of the managers of Askari. He had just collected Sarah, the other volunteer for this month, from the airport, and then together we went to a Spar to buy anything we might want for the week, and then did the hour drive to Askari.
Sarah is really lovely, the same age as me, and this is the first part of her 6 month travelling trip! At Askari we met Katie, the other manager, and Kathy, an intern that is learning the ropes to cover the 2 weeks that Katie and Joe are taking off during August. Kathy is great, she’s studying Zoological Conservation so we chat about a lot of animal stuff!
Joe and Katie are an amazing team. The set up they have here is awesome. The Askari volunteer house is massive and so well kited out! Me and Sarah share the girls room, and Kathy is in one of the double bed rooms, and then there is an empty boys room and empty twin room. The kitchen is huge and we can help our self to any breakfast stuff throughout the day. Katie and Joe stay in a house just across the drive. The garden is huge, and next to us are some breeding camps that they have set up!
As soon as we arrived we had lunch and then went off on our first drive! We saw some waterbuck, and even found the hammerkop nest they have been looking for. A sickle bush had been pushed across one of the roads by elephants, so we quickly got to work removing it, some nasty scratches along the way. The first night was so quiet, it’s weird not hearing any cars, people, dogs barking… nothing at all, maybe the odd hyena call.
Today was the main orientation day. Kathy showed us around the site and explained the rota for our duties each day and then how the cooking rota works as well. For example, I was in charge of setting up the table for lunch, and clearing up after dinner.
We had a lecture from Phil, one of the Pidwa managers about the whole site, and took us up to HQ. Basically, there is this really rich guy called John McCormack who bought the area that is now known as Pidwa Reserve. It is linked with a site called Makalali to the south, and together they make up about 25,000 hectares where wildlife can move freely (mostly). Askari is the name of the wilderness conservation project that is being run on Pidwa, as John wanted to form an area of South Africa that is in its natural state. HQ is where most spare parts, equipment, and vehicles are kept. Brian is the Pidwa managers, Phil and Garth are his assistants that live on sight.
After lunch we went on our first herbivore sex and age ratio count, using a GPS to record the exact location. We saw one of the white rhinos and her baby calf during the drive, and then right at the end (it was dark by now) we saw two hyenas, right by the Askari gate!
We had our fence checking lecture this morning, but got very distracted en route as Joe spotted a den entrance! It turned out to be a hyena den, possibly with cubs inside! We got quite a good lesson on tracking that day, learning how to recognise cat prints compared to hyena, and then giraffes and wildebeest.
Later on we had a riffle handling lecture! Katie explained the difference in the different calibrations and riffles, and on any reserve with dangerous animals (any of the big 5) a .458 calibration is used. Then we went to the landing strip (another part of HQ) to practice! I think Sarah did the best overall, I got closest to bulls eye, and Kathy hit the same spot almost every time! So much fun, but very loud!
In the afternoon we had a first aid lecture, basically about spiders and scorpions, the different venoms and how they work, and about heat exhaustion. It was a really funny lecture actually, probably not what Joe intended, but we did learn a lot.
Then we had an amazing opportunity to feed the brown hyena they currently have in a boma. One of the least sighted animals, it was such a rare gift to see them. They are currently trying to build up the numbers in the wild and return them to this area, and so should be released from the boma into the rest of the reserve next month sometime. Because they are such a rare animal to see as they are so timid and secretive, Katie is actually doing a Masters on the project as they have never been studied before.
We had an interesting animal management lecture in the morning about how they use the different age and sex counts to monitor what animals may need to be moved out and what can be introduced to the reserve. During the lecture there was a call over the radio to say a wildcat had been spotted! Another rare animal to see, so we jumped in the car and rushed off, but missed it by about 1 minute!
Afterwards we went back to the camera trap we had set up to see if anything had been recorded. We had over 160 photographs of two gorgeous little hyena cubs! Both still mostly black with grey faces, indicating that they are about 3 months old!
Next was our poacher patrol through the buffalo camp (a sectioned off bit of the reserve that rhinos and a cheetah have been released into). You stand in a line with about 5-10 meters between you and walk in a direction that the leader indicates. We were looking for wires hanging from trees or on the floor that would be used to capture mostly antelope. I spotted something hanging off a tree in the distance and pointed it out to Katie so we went to investigate. It was a poacher’s camp! A few months old, but a full on camp that had been left in a bit of a hurry by the looks of it! It was a weird feeling to look at it, because although it’s a positive thing that you’ve found it, it also is depressing that it’s even there in the first place.
The afternoon was taken up by our wilderness lecture, we went up to the koppie and looked over the whole of Pidwa. Joe found us a scorpion under a rock and I held it for a little while, it wasn’t deadly and had a surprisingly soft belly. The view from up high was amazing and really peaceful.
4X4 driving lesson today! A lot of fun and no accidents either! Joe explained how the Diff Lock system works in 4X4 cars and then got each of us to drive down into a ravine, across the river and up the other side! Was pretty awesome!
Next we went and collected more photos from the camera trap, some really cute ones of the hyena cubs playing with some antlers! We then attempted to track the female cheetah in the buffalo camp using a telemetry receiver for the collar she wears, but were unsuccessful. Hopefully she hasn’t escaped!
Our alien vegetation lecture was good, and we injected a lot of cactuses that aren’t indigenous with the plant poison, to only kill them and not the surrounding plants.
Sometimes you don’t get a lot of mammal sightings, but a lot of bird sightings, and Katie said she liked our group because we were really into the bird watching as well as the mammals, which she said isn’t always the case with volunteers, and we ask loads of interesting questions too apparently! So the drives are always good fun, finding out as much as possible about everything we see, and Katie and Joe are so willing to teach us everything they know, it’s great!
Last day of the working week, and only a half day. We had our next herbivore ratio count, and actually herd a lion call off in the distance, but it sounded quite far away. We then attempted to use the telem to find the two cheetah boys that have been released into Langalanga, but again were unsuccessful. Katie thinks it’s the receiving box, apparently it’s not the best one that they have, so doesn’t always pick up a good signal.
Finally the afternoon and all Sunday off! We curled up on sofa’s in the lounge and watched Monster’s Inc in the afternoon and then that night it was the braai. Was a really great night, just chilling out, chatting to everyone, Phil and Garth joined us and they’re a funny bunch when you put them all together. Latest night we’ve had all week as we’re usually in or the way to bed by 9pm!
Hope everyone back home is ok, and that you're having better weather than us! Its bellow 5 degrees before 9am when we're out on drives, so hat, gloves, and scarf! Not cool! Missing everyone!