A Travellerspoint blog

Last week at Askari

Week 3

sunny 26 °C

I can’t believe it’s my last week at Askari, I’ve had such an amazing time here it’s just flown by! I’ve learned so much, but there is so much more I could learn it feels too soon to be leaving! I go on to the next project, LEO Africa, on Tuesday. I don’t think its more than 45 mins drive away so Kathy has said if I don’t like it she’ll come pick me up :p I’m sure it will be great though, but it’s sad to be leaving our little Top Birds team…

In the evening we did some baking, banana and choc chip slice, and as we were stood in the kitchen Sarah suddenly points outside, and just chilling out munching on a tree is Monghead the giraffe! His horns have gone weird and have merged together… apparently it’s a form of cancer that giraffes get!

There was a herd of elephants at the end of the drive as we were leaving to go shopping in town. They had a baby with them, so got a bit agitated with us, trumpeting and flapping their ears, so we turned the engine off until they went passed! Phalaborwa town was quite good, and I finally managed to get some “sock savers” that you wear over the tops of your shoes to stop all the grass seeds and thorn spikes getting into your shoes! Best R65 I’ve spent yet! Got a discount as well for being involved in conservation!

Today was our second attempt to find the poacher’s den in Buffalo camp, however, we came across the sad sight of a snared eland instead. The smell was what we noticed first, and so Joe lead the way to where it was coming from, and caught in a snare was a huge eland adult male. It was really horrible to see, it had only been dead for 3-4 days judging by maggot activity. We scouted the whole area to find any other snares to collect them in and found another with what was left of a zebra and then just the skeleton of a wildebeest in another. It’s so frustrating as the snares are all cold, the poacher’s aren’t even around to collect the kills, they just up and leave, so animals can be caught in them for years to come! We were all a bit angry after that… We went back in the afternoon to put up the camera trap as we wanted to see what animals were feeding on the eland.
On a more positive note we cleared up some scrap metal that had been washed up in a summer flood, and then that night got back to the house to find that broadband had finally been installed! Katie and Joe have been waiting for 6 months! I’ve come to realise that if you’re in the bush and need something done, if you think of the most complicated, least economical and wasteful method, the chances are that that is how it is done!

We had a 6am start today as we attempted to find the Askari lion pride for a genetics project that is being conducted from Makalali. The lions needed to be darted to collect some body tissue in order to work out the bloodlines of the area. We didn’t find a single fresh track all morning, but it didn’t matter as we were very preoccupied playing Bird Wars! As we’ve all become quite obsessed with birds over the last few weeks we’ve all become quite good at identifying them and so Bird Wars commenced! Kathy was the winner with 23 points, even after some were deducted due to dirty tactics! We may not have found lions, but we did see the two rogue cheetah boys! They were on the river bank and came up to the road, crossing right in front of the car. They’re both massive, probably the biggest a cheetah can get!
The afternoon was dedicated to prepping for sleep out. Katie organised the food and we packed up everything we needed into the car. We arrived at the river side campsite about 4pm and collected fire wood. Whilst us girls were up at the fire, Joe was fishing and caught the biggest barbel! He somehow staggered up the camp with it to make sure someone got a picture before he put it back! It was massive! We were joined by two herds of elephants during the night. I was woken up and told to quickly get into the car at one point as something had spooked some elephants and they were charging quite close to the camp! It was a long cold night, but a lot of fun. We had an amazing view of the stars and could see the Milky Way really clearly. Dinner was great, we toasted some marshmallows and each took our turn at taking watch during the night. Elecia and Phil joined us too for the night, which is rare in winter, so was good to have them!

That morning was cold, so we were up and packed up by 7am. After unpacking and airing all our smoky clothes we went on a powerlines walk through Langa to check for any fatalities. Luckily we didn’t find any. After lunch we went to find the female cheetah in Buffalo camp again, and this time got lucky! Sarah picked up her signal with the telem and we ended up having to walk into the bush to find her. We only went about 5 meters before she jumped up out of the long grass literally a few meters from our feet and ran off a little way. She stopped and watched us for a bit so we were able to get quite a good sighting. She’s a lot more jumpy than the boys, so that we got a sighting at all was amazing! On the drive back through the Buffalo camp, Kathy suddenly shouted stop, and laying under a small tree behind some reeds at one of the dams was a leopard!! Such a brief sighting as it quickly got up and disappeared into the bush, but absolutely amazing! We were all so chuffed as we could now officially say we’d seen the Big 5!

After another early morning route drive we did some road clearing and got a proper stab in the hand from a sickly bush. My hand was pretty useless for the rest of the day after that. Today was also our third attempt at finding the poacher’s camp, and finally we were successful! Joe had remembered some small details about the positing, and so we started walking the direction he thought it was, and I walked right up to it! We collected their belongings they had left in case any finger prints can be found. We then went back to the eland carcass to take down the camera trap, and what amazing photos we got! Some of Africa’s most elusive animals were seen feeding, so it was a real positive spin on the whole incident as now we know just how populated Pidwa is with these rare and hardly seen animals! One photo even showed a honey badger scaring off a side-stripped jackal!
That night we went into Hoedspruit to a restaurant for one of Katie and Joe’s friend’s leaving do. The meal was good even if the service was a bit shoddy, and then we went on to Safari Club to do some dancing. It was a really great fun night out! Got back to Pidwa at 2am to be met by some more amazing sightings! We saw a juvenile porcupine, and then a spotted eagle owl feeding on a barn owl!

Luckily Katie said we could have a late start, so only got up at 8am. There had been some hyena calls not long before we got up, including cackling which only happens when they are feeding, so during our morning route drive we went to inspect the area the noises had been coming from and came across the collared hyena and two others. We think they’re the same hyena adults we see at the den in the photographs, so it was cool to see where they spend their time away from the den.
That night was our leaving party, and it was so much fun! Firstly we all had our merits and demerits in the form of alcoholic shots, then we got to watch a video of all the best photographs from the last few weeks with an amazing Top Gun theme due to our recent Top Gun obsession and appropriately named volunteer group name of Top Birds!
We had fondue for dinner and then the games began! Flip cup, spoons, pyramid and this awesome dice game that they play in Pirates of the Caribbean! It was an amazing night, they make such a big effort for the volunteers here, you really feel like a part of the family!

Today has been another chilled out sunbathing day, it was reallt great to chat to my parents and Chris this week, seems like forever since I was at home! Hope everyone back home is doing well.


Posted by Rachellina 12:53 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

Askari Wilderness Conservation Project

Week 2

sunny 23 °C

Another sunny day, looks like we'll be doing some more sunbathing today. Had a great long week, can't believe I only have 1 week left here, it's going too fast! Had some great animal sightings this week too!

Our town trip was pretty cool! We went to Hoedspruit to go to the reptile park. The guy doing the tour was a bit annoying, but we did learn some cool stuff. We also got a close up demonstration with the boomslang, snouted cobra and the puff adder.
The town is quite small with touristy shops as it’s close to Kruger but we stocked up on stuff (chocolate and wine for us girls) and then headed home. Almost as soon as we got into the Pidwa gate a rhino walked across the road right in front of us. Then after dinner we went to check out the hyena den to see if they were out, and amazingly they were out playing, running about like they do in the pics and vids we have of them! They didn’t even run inside to hide. Such a great way to end the day!

Our last lecture this morning, vegetation management, was a lot more interesting than it sounds, and we’ve become real fans of killing alien vegetation!
Next was a cheetah research trip to Langa. We were very determined to find the two boys after failing at the boys and girl the previous week. Amazingly, the first check I did with the telem I herd a faint bleep, so we followed it and found them 100m down the road next to the fence! Katie told us all to get out the car, as they prefer us on foot, and we got to walk right up close to them. They we so chilled out, just acting like any cat would in the sun. One then started walking up towards us and passed us, checking out the car. Was amazing, being 2 meters away from a wild cheetah just incredible!
That afternoon we had our exams! Just a test really, we answered about 50 questions and then did a species recognition assessment and a quick parts of the car practical test. It was good as it helps you to focus on stuff you haven’t learned yet, and helps Katie and Joe know what needs more focus. We all passed anyway (I got 92%). We then cleaned out the nyala and sable breeding camps. Very messy hard work in the sun, but was good to get stuck in and do some physical work, as a lot of the time we are sat on the game viewer.

Today we had the opportunity to go to Kruger National Park to watch Constant taking down camera traps set to watch activity around the powerline poles (we got to drive down a lot of “no entry” roads). He is monitoring the damage done by animals on the poles as a coalition between Endangered Wildlife Trust and Eskom power company. After seeing some of the photographs he had collected, we had the chance to drive back through Kruger to see the wildlife. As we had a EWT sticker on the car earlier on we got a very private viewing of 3 lions. The list of animals we saw: elephants, spotted hyena, zebra, white rhino, impala, secretary bird, tawney eagle, bateleur, giraffes, marabou stork, wildebeest, buffalo, kori bustards, Burchelle’s glossy starling, darters, crocodiles, hippos, red-billed ox-peppers, gymnogene, white-backed vulture, southern ground hornbill, steenbuck, slender mongoose, hooded vulture, Swaynsen’s spur fowl, scrub hare, and a porcupine. It was an amazing day, a lot of fun, even if cramped in the car all day, for only R45 we definitely got our monies worth!

Today was a hard day, the sun was out all day, and we didn’t stop till long after dark! We got up and began the day by digging a water pool for Eddie in his aviary. We collected sand and stones and then dug a hole ready to be cemented the next day. After this we did road clearing, which involved removing roadside plants and bushes to make easier access for the vehicles to get by. I now have so many scratches on my arms, it looks pretty horrific! After lunch we went to HQ where Phil dissected an impala for us (which would later be fed to the brown hyena) and showed us different parts of the body – a very interesting learning experience! We were offered to taje home the testicle sac…none of us took the offer! We then did alien plant control – finding areas with ‘prickly pear’ or ‘queen of the night’ growing and injected them with herbicide. Following this we drove straight to Langa Langa and watched the brown hyenas being fed. One has a limp at the moment, but hyenas are tough and so Katie isn’t that worried about it. After dinner we then did a night time drive to monitor nocturnal animals – we saw two great sightings of genets, one climbed up a tree right next to our car and watched us for a bit. They’re such rare animals to see, we couldn’t believe that we say a large spotted and then later a small spotted too!

Early start today as we were off to Pidwa South to do our herbivore ratio count. Pidwa South is a good 40 minute drive to even reach from Askari house, and that’s if you don’t stop to watch anything along the way! As we almost reached the start of the route, I suddenly spotted a lion close to the damn we were passing, walking between some bushes. We stopped and watched her for a bit, and attempted to identify her by looking at her whisker markings. My first lion spotting in Pidwa! On the route drive we saw loads of birds, including the cocqui francolin, which is rare to see on Pidwa, and the male looks like it has the head of a duckling! We left at 6:30am wearing about 7 layers, plus hat, scarf and gloves, and returned at 11am wearing just a t-shirt!
We then made the cement for Eddie’s waterhole and filled it in. The rocks we had collected were used to surround it and we even put a tree stump with branches next to it. After lunch we tried to find the female cheetah again in Buffalo camp, but still no luck. Katie thinks she’s moved from her usual areas as some of the impala have been removed from the camp.
As it was Garth’s birthday on Tuesday, we all went out for dinner tonight. Just as we were leaving Pidwa, something ran across the road, so Katie quickly swung the car around so the headlights fell on it, and we saw a honey badger quickly run into the bush! They're such cool animals, can't believe we saw one! It was sbout 40 mins drive to a restaurant, which is of course designed for summer, so we were all sat outside! It was a funny night, everyone’s food was warm instead of hot, and then Kathy’s cappuccino was only foam, had no coffee in it at all! Some people ordered mojito’s which had vodka instead of rum in as they’d run out of rum!
Whilst we were there a load of GVI volunteers turned up, mostly to get drunk by the looks of it. A lot of the people that Katie, Joe and Kathy know are related to GVI in some way. They are such a big company, but none of them have that many good things to say about GVI, except that it’s a good way to get to know people that are involved in other projects that are actually doing positive things for conservation.
We all fell asleep on the drive home, and then Katie and Joe had to climb through their bedroom window to get back into their house. Their dog, Cooper, is still scared of being left alone, but he’s fine if he thinks they’re in the bedroom at night time. So to leave that night, they went into the bedroom and then climbed out the window so he didn’t know they were leaving. Amazingly it worked though, he didn’t suspect a thing!

Last early start to the week, we went on another herbivore ratio count this time on route 2. We saw lots of Kudu, and the new Eland that arrived on the reserve a few days ago. At the end of the drive we saw the Askari pride of lions too! They’re a small pride of 3 sub-adult males, and 2 adult females that somehow evade the massive pride that otherwise rule Pidwa and Makalali.
After the drive we went back to Buffalo camp, this time to try and find the poacher’s camp that we had found the week before, to collect up all the bits into bags to then give to the police, in case any finger prints can be found and traced. However, even with the rock arrow we made pointing towards the camp in the bush, we couldn’t find it any where! After about 1 hour of walking around, we had to call it a day, but hopefully we’ll have a chance to go back in next week to try find it!
The afternoon was spent sun bathing, doing some laundry, and then watching films in the evening. Some much needed time off after such a long week!

Hope everyone back home is ok and enjoying summer holidays! Missing you all, lots of love!

Posted by Rachellina 00:56 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

Askari Wilderness Conservation Resereve

First week here

semi-overcast 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!


Posted by Rachellina 01:07 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

Staying with family

semi-overcast 4 °C

This week has been amazing, seeing family again that I haven't seen in years! I'm currently near Pretoria staying with my aunt, uncle and two cousins on their small farm plot. After a quite smooth flight to Johannesburg, my uncle, Martin and cousin, Terrance met me at the airport (luckily they had a small sign with my name on ;-) as I literally hadn't seen them in over 10 years).

After landing, my aunt, Alex and cousin, Abby, showed me around the house and the farm plot. They have 3 adorable dogs, and Abby has 3 horses too. They also have geese and chickens running around the plot (the geese will chase and nip at you), and then some doves and finches in aviaries. I went with Abby for her singing lesson, and then when we got back we rode around the farm on the quad bike! So much fun!! Abby and I also did some baking for dessert after dinner! We made these awesome apple puff pastry things. Yummmm so good! It's so cold here at night time I have 4 blankets and a hot water bottle!

Abby and I went horse riding on the farm. She has a arena with all the letters in place like a proper riding school on a section of the farm. I did some trotting, cantering and even a few jumps! I couldn't believe I actually remembered how to horse ride as its been nearly 10 years since I last rode properly! Was so great, and in the sun you can wear just a t-shirt as you warm up really quickly.
Later we went to 'Wet Nose', a small cat and dog rescue and re-homing center. It was sad to see all the animals that you don't know will be re-homed, but we also were allowed in any enclosures, so we went in and played with the puppies and kittens!
As it has been much colder than I thought, we popped to a nearby shopping center so I could buy some extra layers. It was brand new and ridiculously clean and quite!

I flew to Durban to visit my grandparents. I flew with an airline called Kulula, if you ever get a chance to fly with them, do it, they have a comedic attitude to the whole thing and make it a very entertaining flight.
My granny took me to the Shark Board almost as soon as I landed. Its an educational shark site, where we watched an information video on how they keep the waters safe for swimmers, and then we watched a shark dissection! Pretty grim, but really interesting as well! The shark was pregnant so there were baby shark pups inside it still!

I saw dolphins swimming in the sea from my bedroom window first thing! Apparently there is a sardine run soon, so the dolphins gather for long periods at a time near to the coast. My granny took me to PheZulu overlooking the thousand hills valley. We had a guide take us around the reptile park, learning loads about crocodiles! We then got asked if we wanted to hold a python, so me and my granny held this huge python around our necks! So heavy!
That evening after dinner we watched some of the Andy Murry game before going to bed.

This morning I went for a walk along the beach with my granny before catching my flight back up to Lanseria airport. Me and Alex went for a walk with the dogs when we got back home, and I've just about repacked all my things into my big suitcase ready for the bus ride to Phalaborwa tomorrow.
I've had such a lovely time seeing all my family again! Durban was so sunny and amazing, and having a beach view at all times was lovely, as well as seeing my grandparents again. The farm already feels like home, it's sad to be leaving it so soon, but I am looking forward to Phalaborwa a bit more now!

Missing everyone back home so much! Hope everyone is well!

Posted by Rachellina 12:03 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

South Africa

Wildlife Adventure

sunny 26 °C

I can't believe I leave for South Africa in a few hours! I'm leaving our little heatwave in Britain for winter time in S.A! Can't wait to see my aunt and grandparents again, not seen them in years! And then hopefully off to Phalaborwa to do some wildlife voluntary work on some reserves! It's going to be a really long 7 weeks being away from home and travelling on my own, I'm gunna miss everyone so much! I'm so nervous everytime I think about it EEKKKK! Hopefully it all goes OK though :)

I'm not sure what internet connections will be like where I'm staying, but I'll try to update when I can!


Posted by Rachellina 05:16 Archived in England Comments (0)

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