New girls on the block

Every property has a superstition attached to it, “scientifically” based on the animal movements. If you want to find rhino you go this way, if you want to find elephants you go to the river, if you want to find lions you go North and if you want to find leopards you go East.

On a morning of explorations, I was on my favourite road during a winter morning. We had been driving for a while, without seeing much almost making me regret my route choice. Sometimes you follow your gut feeling, and sometimes that gut feeling, you learn, can disappoint.

As we came into a junction I slammed on the brakes. Unknown to me as to how, my tracker and 3 guests missed the spots that walked right in front of us. At first a blur, commotion and screaming; we then realized that the blur was actually a mother and two cubs!. Hands shake, I’m too afraid to call it out loud, they’re going offroad, low range goes in, let’s do this. Hands stil shake. Cameras are going click click click click click click click. Heart has stopped. I can’t think.

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A few seconds after we spotted the,

We had never met before, but when she saw me she only glanced at us and then carried on. My heart was about to explode. She was taking her two cubs to a kill. I was alone in the West and there was a jungle ahead of us – the Universe granted us this much of privacy as everyone else was too far to join. I snapped a few photos to try and figure out who this mystery girl was and then they disappeared into the wild.

A few weeks went by I still hadn’t managed to find them again. I drove the same road, the same area, always with the hope of finding a sign of them. Their backyard was too big, I didn’t have such luck until one day Enock made my luck change. He found them and called me back, I saw them again playing in the tall grass and was completely taken by these larger balls of fluff.

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As it happens, one of them was more outgoing, one of them was shier. They were both entertaining. We were to become great friends after that. I would go West on my own looking for them and on more occasions than not, they allowed me to find them and spend time with them on their daily goings. A privilege that demanded a loud Thank You to the stars. They became my favourites, part of many storied and encounters and always there on the most unexpected days.

Outcrop and her cubs became of the best gifts I ever received.

The Charleston

Lion prides are probably one of the most interesting creatures to see over a period of time. Seeing them just once might prove boring as the myths are truth, they do sleep like the kings and queen on the jungle. Many an hour have been spent by all rangers in hopes of them raising their heads, start yawning and getting up after the afternoon slumber. It’s the hope of greatness when they move or roar that keeps making you come back. After all, you can only feel truly alive when you’re amongst lions – or so they say.

When you combine all the things you’ve seen them do, all the news you’ve been told, and all the stories you’ve heard, chances are that lions will surprise you, proving that their dynamics are anything but peaceful and tranquil. Game of thrones holds nothing against them.

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One of the “cubs” guarding a giraffe kill from advancing hyenas

The first we saw them it was by pure luck. Ian looked to the right and spotted them, Allan didn’t like lions, we only stayed with them until the rest of the rangers arrived.

“Thanks! We’ve been looking for them all morning”
“Who are they?”
“The Charleston pride“

It was just the beginning of the ill fate for this pride. The first and only time I would see a glimpse of a former glory. When I got see them again a few females and a few cubs had been caught in the crossfire with a larger pride, decimating this pride and reducing it to a one lioness pride, leading 3 young cubs. This particular lioness became some sort of a legend, and the favourite of many. Mother of one, aunt of two, she eventually lost her daughter but succeeded in raising the two male cubs on her own. Some were sceptical about her success, some wondered what would happen, but as the cubs grew healthier and stronger she earned the respect of many, became the favourite of the East.

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The mighty Charleston female

Being a lion is no easy task, being a lioness and having to raise cubs to adulthood might prove even more difficult but her perseverance and tenacity won. Her legacy lived on, as the two cubs became the rulers of an area that condemned them in their youth to live like outcasts, and seek the safety of the Sand river. Last time I saw her, true to herself she had two new male cubs and had accepted the presence of an unrelated young male. She still commanded the respect from the rangers that had met her.

A year later I’m grateful that her body wasn’t found. She went away like the empress she was. Quietly, gracefully, royally. Safe travels girl, your legacy lives on.

Tree anthem

What is that one?”
“I don’t know”
“And that one?”
“A jackalberry…?” “Ouch! That hurt. Was that not one a Jackalberry?
“They both were, pay attention”
“What is that one?”
“Knob thorn”
“Latin name?”
“Acacia nigrescens”
“That one?”
“Acacia…?”

“Oh, third one wrong. Off you go, hug and apologise to it”

“Hug the thorny tree?”
“Unless you want to walk home…”

“I’ll hug it!”

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Sickle bush (Dychrostachys cinerea) flowers

Self inflicted love for trees was something that I didn’t see coming from Allan’s unusual training methods. During our ranger training he truly believed that getting hurt while hugging spiny trees (mostly Acacias or sickle bush) was the best way to learn. It was effective – you can only get them wrong so many times before the shape of every thorn becomes an all too familiar feeling on your skin.

We would spend hours driving around trying to identify African trees correctly – get it wrong and you will hug thorns, apologise publicly to the tree or be driven into a branch while on the tracker seat. Can’t say it was a very nice part of training, but it made into an effective game.

As a kid me and my brothers were taught the tree anthem in preschool, along with all the basic kiddies songs.

“To tree we owe unrequited love,
we should never forget
they’re the work of God”

DSC_0868Growing up I loved trees mainly because I could climb up and build a treehouse that consisted mostly on a plank on a branch – but alas this was my kingdom. As life got in the way I always liked climbing them, but didn’t pay much more attention other than “oh! it’s in flower, pretty”.

A few years down the line I have come to realisation that if trees wished so, they could rule the world. Maybe even one day the world will end smothered by the roots of these ancient rulers. In my new life I keep becoming more respectful and mesmerised by them. Their deadliest weapon is being able to observe us, quietly, everyday, in every routine until the end of time. They can grow anywhere, survive for longer than turtles, speak to each other, help each other and have distinct personalities. Invisibility to human eyes is their super power.

If impala are ninjas, and frogs superstars, trees are definitely the Einstein of the world – not Africa’s, the world. Tamboti trees with their toxic latex (like the “innocent” Christmas trees we welcome to our houses), are able to prevent sapling from other trees to grow where they are (talk about tree racism right?). Leadwoods are able to stand for centuries after dying, Acacias and their fluffy flowers are able to alert other Acacias of the impending danger of hungry giraffes, Sausage trees in all their greatness have evolved to be pollinated by bigger bats instead of tiny insects.

After spending about 6 months trying to identify different trees, their medicinal uses, how they change every season, what are their characteristics, I learned to let myself marvel and be more humble before any trunk with leaves. You have to understand; from an impala poo sized seed, entire trees grow and stand for centuries. CENTURIES!. For so long they see us pass by, make mistakes and they won’t say a word, they will just give us the air we need to survive – talk about martyrs and hidden sacrifices.

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Velvet bushwillow (Combretum molle)

I now travel and notice them all around me, in Africa, in the cities, anywhere in the world. I see them and wonder what they, what they do, what colour their leaves will be, what animals eat them, why they look so funny…

I’d like to have a prairie of a garden so that I could have a Leadwood, an Apple leaf with its beautiful tiny purple flowers, a Sausage tree to climb, an Impala Lily to fight with, a Baobab for symbolism, a Weeping Willow because they remind me of Neverland, and an Araguaney for home.

Oh the ecological damage I’d love as a garden! Kew, you could be proud.

Reality, you let me dream.

 

The story of 11

Once upon a time there were… well, a bunch of people; how they met was a mix of fate, coincidence, opportunity, and maybe a bit of stubbornness. How they all arrived together in Africa is the mystery that weaves this story. If we had to chose a character to rile everyone up and travel to one of the world’s wildest place, we would say it was the most unexpected one: Mayú – whom I’ll be forever in debt to because if it wasn’t for her, Maximo would have never come to Africa.

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Beautiful Madikwe and its dark-maned lions

Truth is that the beauty of a story like this one, is that it doesn’t really matter who planned, who decided ore even how it happened. The important thing about this story is that 11 people (and later on an extra Laura), with the biggest grin and firm thoughts, all said:

“I’m going”

After a few months of preparations everyone put on their migratory plumage and the migratory birds landed in a strange land: Africa.

The first safari in Madikwe was exceptional (including how hot it was), with good spirit; high expectations were fulfilled in less tan 3 hours.

“Ohhhh! Ahhh. Look, look, look! Stop!! Stooop”

“IMPALAAAAA”

“Oh my God that’s amazing look at the giraffes!”

“Mimi take a photo!! Photo photo!”

“That’s a massive ram look at its horns”

“Oh no, too exciting!”

“..CLICKCLICK CLICKCLICK” – said every camera.

“Look at the lions”  (Total awe. Total silence – one of the few moments where the characters of our story couldn’t find the words in them).

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“We are going to stop here for a sundowner”

“Ale, what to we drink here?”

“Gin and tonic of course!” – G&T the drink that would mark every sundowner, every lunch and occasionally a dinner.

 

Had we been superstitious we could have claimed the good omen of a great first day and many more to follow. However because everyone is terrified of the urban “jinx” everyone reserved their expectations, thrilled to have found so much in such a short time, daring to dream of what would come next..

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Learning about Matabele ants.

There were tense moments, when the leopard wasn’t there, when the buffalo were hiding, when the elephants looked at us in a funny way, when Maria told us off, when Titti tried to share Laura’s dessert. Memorable moments? There were far more! The first elephant, the first rhino, the fifth lion, every sunset, when Ale found Maximo a leopard n the first afternoon, when the elephant calf charged us and fell tangled up with its trunk, when Mowgli found the python, when Momoy’s cell phone went for a dive in the soup, the tree house, the bushwalk, the happiness.

Trying to summarise a trip with so many emotions is nearly impossible. It’s hard to do justice to so many different days, measured in so many different scales.

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Little cheeky elephant

Everyone took home what touched their hearts, and everyone took home a different vision of a previously unknown world.

Life is made out of moments shared like this, with bunched up happiness radiating from the accumulated energy of those around you. What really matters is to be surrounded by those who fall in love with the bigger things – Like Laura and desserts – or those who thank every god and the Universe for letting live the faces of those whoa came looking to fulfil a dream.

Two weeks for the soul, one family, on wild world. Africa, we thank you.

My house smells like rhino

IMG_0372-2Poaching is a terrible thing worldwide and it affects too many species to count. It’s not only a serious problem, it’s a scary one. In some Asian countries, Traditional Chinese Medicine TCM prescribes different animals parts (like bone, eyes, gallbladders, horns, etc.) from different species (or substitutes species!) of animals to treat an ever-growing amount of human diseases. The plight of rhino is no news for anyone that has an interest in the natural world. Rhino’s are currently being killed all around the world for on thing only: their precious horns. According to the TCM rhino horn can be used to treat a variety of thing, including but not limited to infections, fevers and cancer. However because it’s become so expensive, it’s morphed from a medicinal ingredient to a symbol of status. Only those with money and power can afford it, and will therefore flaunt it to prove they’re part of some illogical elite in their country. If you consider a KG will go for about USD 65’000 then you get what I’m saying – an expensive piece of ornament in your coffee table, marked with the blood of an innocent animal to prove how cool you are.

Trying to raise and rehabilitate rhinos into the wild in these conditions is tough and can be heart breaking. All sorts of measures from infusing the horn with poison, to dehorning the rhinos are being tried in an attempt to deter poachers – sadly, it doesn’t always work. Human greed knows no end.

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The pre rhino days.

After being closely hit by a poaching attempt on one of the handsome males, we decided to take matters into our own hands and welcome a new girl into our house: Dela – a black rhino of about 8 months of age, being the 4th new girl to share a living space. In theory she should sleep in our garden however there are no doors – or boundaries – that Dela won’t break down in order to get closer to her human mom, Erin. Have you ever heard of anyone being able to stop a rhino? No? That’s because you can’t. They’re smart and too stubborn to give up! Before losing another door or gate or bed we decided we were better off waking up early, sweeping and moping the house before our daily routine just to make sure we could keep an eye on her during the night and not stress that she was being watched while someone counted the dollars of her horn. She makes for a great foot rest for Sunday movies, problem is she smells like a rhino and she is – put it mildly – a loving brat. She only likes certain people, will only listen to Erin or Dave and

What difference could 3 girls make against armed poachers? Seriously? Nada. Zip. Zero. Nothing. A house of 3 girls, no guns, no real backup. Our only strategy is to deter anyone from coming into the middle of the living quarters to try and get a rhino out of a house. It made perfect sense to us, she would be perfectly safe with us.

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Girls night in.

Two weeks after she moved in she made Laura cry, broke Erin’s bed and peed on my sandals. Needless to say, I nearly killed her – poachers and rhinos know no rath like a girl loosing her work shoes haha!