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Stephanie's Blog

As Wild As Life Gets

Friday, June 19, 2009

I woke up in a hurry. Thinking I was late I rushed to get packed up and ready for an exciting day. Just as I had finished my packing and was about to go down for breakfast my roommate told me that my alarm was an hour early. Great, I thought. What a way to start out my day. Not wanting to go back to bed, afraid I would not wake up again or not hear the alarm; I stayed up reading the hotel room service menu. I was obviously quite bored, but to my surprise the menu was a lot like something served in the United States. I guess Holiday Inns are all pretty similar. At breakfast I made another discovery, the ability to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in South Africa. Not having a taste for the traditional American eggs and bacon I ate peanut butter and jelly because it was hard to come by in South Africa. While eating the sandwich I was informed at how peanut butter and jelly is considered a poor sandwich in South Africa, even though it is a whole lot better than the cheese and tomato sandwiches I receive for sack lunch days. After loading the bus and getting on, which is still a challenge after spending so long here due to the side of entry (everything is backwards in South Africa), I nestled down and fell fast asleep, catching up on that extra hour I lost that morning.
Our first stop was at a gas station. The tour guide told us to be back in 30 minutes. Wondering why it would take us that long we argued to be back in 20. He knew what he was talking about as most of us came across shops at the gas station. In the shops we found biltong, an African snack food. Biltong is a lot like beef jerky just quite a bit easier to chew and tastier in my opinion. Most of us stocked up on the snack food, not sure what we would be fed at Kruger. We ended up spending the 30 minutes buying some other small souvenirs and such. The second stop was in a small town. There we went to Pickles and Things, a local bistro cafĂ©. At Pickles and Things I ate an unprocessed meat hamburger with fresh fries. The hamburger was good but different from the unprocessed ones served back at home. Maybe a little beefier than what I’m used to, but I’m not quite sure. For dessert I had the African original of warm cake under custard. In the small town I also went to some craft shops. There was a candle store that had some neat candle holders and wax grains to make for an eye catching candle look. Being as fragile as they were, I decided against purchasing them. I went on a hike to a candy shop, but was caught up in another shop before I made it there. Later I found out that the candy shop was in the other direction so I never would have made my way there anyways. With full stomachs we proceeded with our journey to finally make the trip to Kruger. There was one last stop on our voyage. The weather was rainy, as usual, and we weren’t allowed to enter a road for a while because of the wet conditions so we were forced to wait until the road was open. While waiting our tour guide bought us some naacgis from a vender by the road. Naacgis are similar to a clementine. The fruit has a sweet juicy taste and are easy to peal. The fruit tasted delicious as it glided down my throat. Eventually the road opened back up and we drove through the beautiful mountains. Feeling as if I was in Colorado I took in the glorious sight. Finally, we arrived at the Bush Camp in Kruger National Park. The Bush Camp was inside the park and the area was fenced off so none of the animals could get out, but there was a huge space for the animals to live and go on with their daily lives. The part that kind of frightened me was the fact that the sleeping and living areas were not fenced off completely, so literally a lion could come up and knock on my door one morning. A bit scary, I thought.
Upon arrival we were given our briefing. We would be sleeping in cabin looking structures. We were told every night before we got into bed to shake out our sheets, pillows, and sleeping bags for scorpions, snakes, and spiders. This was a great welcome to the Bush. Not really sure if the ranger was joking around with us we all searched each other’s eyes hoping that someone had researched the Bush enough to know. No luck there and we later found that the ranger was dead serious. We were also told that if a porcupine ever wanders into camp just leave the animal alone to ensure that it won’t bother us. Another animal we had to be careful of was a badger, supposedly ridiculously strong and could take any of us. Now scared for our lives someone asked how often situations like this arise. The ranger, Jakes, explained that it is a hit or miss situation and to always be aware when in the Bush. Jakes said that just last week there was a lady talking on the phone in a dark corner and a porcupine came up and started biting on her shoe. He told us that as long as we stay out of dark areas we should be ok. Once the briefing was finished, most of us weren’t sure if risking our lives as much as we thought we were would be worth seeing animals at their best. We then all piled into our different cabins and immediately went on our first drive.
The drive was exhilarating. The wind combed through my hair and every now and then I would have to duck down low to miss getting hit by branches and thorns. Jakes seemed to know where he was going. Straight to the elephant I suppose. Sure enough we pulled up right next to the baby. Before I knew it I was touching a wild elephant’s trunk, something I never thought I would ever do. The skin was thick and rough with hairs about every centimeter. Based on the looks of an elephant that is not what I would have expected. I was expecting a smooth gentile creature, but as people say, looks can be deceiving. Jakes got out and gave the elephant some water, as if touching wild elephants were a daily occurrence for him and the experience probably was. Excitement flooded our vehicle. We were ready to go see some more of the Bush. Next stop, cheetahs. As we pulled up 20 feet from the fastest animal in the Bush the group came to a hush as we intensely watched the two cheetahs. Jakes explained to us how lucky we were to see the cheetahs as they had not been spotted in over a month now. He told us that those two were the male cheetahs. I asked where the females were and if they had any of them in the park. Jakes responded by saying, “It’s a surprise.” From the cheetahs we immediately drove to the lions also known as the top of the food chain. In other words, lions can pretty much kill anything in the Bush, including humans. Although we were only feet away from the two lions we spotted, there were no causalities that night. There is nothing that compares to looking a deathly animal in the eye. Don’t challenge them to a staring contest, lions always win. Having seen two of the big five (lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards, and buffalos) we returned back to camp to have our first meal in the Bush. Not really sure what to expect from the food made over the fire we were all pleasantly surprised. Dinner for the night was chicken stew and rice, not bad at all. For dessert was a milk tart and the dessert was beyond good. Probably one of the best desserts all trip. After dinner we watched a video on the Bush and met, Ian, one of the owners of the Bush. He explained how special it was that we were here and got to experience a leopard release. We weren’t supposed to know that and I’m pretty sure the significance of the release went over all of our heads. Later on, though, Jakes explained how he had been in Bush for 3 years and never had the chance to experience a leopard release before. The release was a huge deal. They even saved the leopard for 6 more weeks just so our group could participate in the excitement. Ian went on to explain how the government had never come to talk to the rangers and made up their own legislation and therefore the treatment of the animals and the different breeding projects they had going on there was hard to fund and do the right way. He explain how with the leopard release everyone is usually afraid about what will happen to the leopard and if it will get food or eaten by other animals. Ian told us that leopards are instinctive animals and do not have a problem finding food. The leopard is kept in a fenced area where other animals can come around it to expose the leopard to its enemies. The problem truly comes in with the danger the leopard poses to humans because the leopard has been exposed to humans in some way. After hearing about everything and the danger of the animals, we were instructed to go to bed. Getting ready for bed was quite the experience as the water pressure of the faucets were lacking and the water was ice cold. Not to mention the toilets didn’t flush. The experience was truly as if in the wild. While I got ready for bed a noticed a toad in the bathroom with me, he must have wanted to personally welcome me to the Bush.
The night was filled with the sounds of lions, monkeys, hyenas, and birds. The animals also became my wakeup call in the morning, reminding me of the adventures that wait. Before breakfast we went on a walk with a lion, Ikillyou, fortunately none of us became her breakfast. Ikillyou was 2 years old and huge. She easily could have knocked any of us down. Ian would sit on the ground and Ikillyou would come up and pounce on him as if to give him a hug. During the walk Ian and Jakes would hide and trick Ikillyou. They would also play with her and treat her not so nicely, but they explained they weren’t being mean to her they were just treating her as if she were in the wild. At one point Ikillyou even ran through our group, getting everyone riled up. Ian explained that Ikillyou only has one hour of human interaction per day. He also said that she will never be released but her offspring will. After the walk we drove around and learned about the plants of the Bush. Jakes showed us what we would use as a toothbrush. He also showed us a cucumber like plant to eat, but it didn’t taste the best. It tasted like a bitter and sour cucumber. Ash from the fire is what we would use as toothpaste. A certain plant’s sap for soap. We were then ready to live in the Bush.
Arriving back at camp breakfast was waiting. Eggs, toast, and cereal were just what we needed after a morning with a lion. Even though the cooks there couldn’t speak English they sure knew how to cook. On the agenda after breakfast, another drive. On this drive we saw buffalo, 3 down 2 to go on the big five count. The buffalo we saw were not like the ones I have seen in Iowa. These ones had less fur and looked stronger. Jakes told us to make sure we stayed in the vehicle because buffalo like to charge and will run in herds. Through the trees we could barely see the rhino, 4 down 1 to go. Trying to get a closer look we got out of the vehicle and started walking through the Bush. Our only escape now was our feet and hopefully we wouldn’t have to run, but if an animal did come at us we were instructed to stay still and not run. While walking through the Bush we came across many plants with thorns and most of us ended up getting stuck, at least once. Ian showed us different poop of the animals there and the different foods they ate based on their poop. Then came the excitement. Ian picked up a piece of giraffe poop and put it in his mouth and spit the poop far. He then asked “Who’s next?” A leader in our group gave the giraffe pellets a look, and gave the African game a try. Ian was looking for a student to try the game. I gave it a quick thought, it must have been extremely quick because then I volunteered not knowing what I was getting myself into. People looked at me as if I was crazy but, I only live once, right? Sure enough I put the giraffe pellet in my mouth and gave it a shot. I was horrible at the African game, but at least I can say I’ve tried it. To be honest the poop had no taste at all. The poop was quite smooth and light. Ian told us how the poop was pretty clean and the dirtiest part of it was probably the part that hit the ground. To my rescue came someone with gum, and although I had not taste in my mouth the fact that I had done something that disgusting was enough to make me want a piece. No one else would give the game a try, but as soon as we were back on the road, Ian drew a line in the dirt and people began to line up. I decided that one try was enough for me and watched as other people experience the unique African culture.
Back safely in the vehicles we went to the small pond and spotted some hippos. We found out that hippos can hold their breath for 8 minutes and watched as they demonstrated their special talent. We weren’t allowed to get out of the vehicle as hippos can be quite dangerous. After a morning filled with once in a lifetime experiences we went to have a lunch of spaghetti with meat sauce. While waiting for lunch some of us explored the camp. There was a lookout tower, that over looked one of the ponds. The bridges to the lookout tower were a bit shaky and the 3 person limit made us question how safe they really were. But what did we have to lose? We had already tasted giraffe poop that morning. After discovering that nothing was to be seen at that time, we went to the play ground. There I went on a zip line. There is nothing that compares to the moist Bush breeze running through my hair. Also on the playground we tried to balance the seesaw. After almost everyone on the trip joined in our efforts were a success, only for a few minutes, though, before half of us were up in the air and others were on the ground. There were remains of porcupine needles in the playground but this fazed no one as we had seen much more danger. The drive after lunch had surprises hidden away.
Thinking we were going on just another drive we boarded the vehicle. Along the way we came across the cheetahs again, just walking down the road, as if to lead the way for us. The gentile looking creatures posed for all the pictures we wanted to take. Sad to leave the cheetahs we had no idea what was to come. We arrived at a caged area, not really sure what was inside. Soon enough we came face to face with Savannah, a cheetah, and her cubs. Savannah had been released but she just wandered back into camp and so they decided to breed her. We were allowed to play with Savannah but not touch her cubs as they were going to be released after they became bigger. Savannah was beautiful and not as soft as expected. As a good protective mother she kept watch on her cubs at all times. Therefore, we were not allowed to surround her. Watching the cubs bounce around their mom, made us fascinated. I would have never thought I would be able to pet a cheetah before. The cubs were a lot like cats, willing to play games that involved patting hands or paws in their case on the ground. The cubs were also attracted to our bright orange lanyards, but all the students had their awesome handmade beaded ones on so using those as a toy wasn’t a good idea. When it was time to leave none of us wanted to, the experience was just so extraordinary and unforgettable. Eventually, Ian got us out of there and we went to see the cheetah cub that lived at a house, one that we were allowed to touch and pet. They kept one at the house in case something was to happen to the other ones once they were released. We then went back to our elephant friends. There we experienced touching their rough bodies again, before returning to camp for a beef stew. The stew had to be one of my favorite meals on the trip as I devoured every morsel of it. The stew was basic with only beef and potatoes, but just what I needed, and for dessert the chocolate cake made me feel as if I was back home. After dinner we had another drumming circle. We surprised Jakes with our drumming knowledge and played him the one song we had learned at the house. He then went on to teach us another one. The Bush was booming with the rhythmic sounds of our music mixed in with the cries of animals joining in. Soon Kenny, our tour guide, took out his whistle and teachers began banging spoons and dancing. After the music died down we played a game called spoons, where you run around the camp fire and when the music stops you have to grab a spoon on one of the chairs before everyone else does. The person who doesn’t get a spoon is out and the game continues. I was out in one of the first rounds and joined the drummers. In the final two Jakes moved the spoon so it was hard to find, making the game more enjoyable, for the observers at least. The game ended and it was campfire story time. Kenny told us about his encounter with a lion. He had us on the edge of our seats and about how the lion came right up to him and he thought his life was at risk. Then the lion said, “Hi, Kenny. How are you doing?” All that suspense for nothing. Ian told use about how he almost saw a lion eat a fellow ranger before, but due to the ranger’s inability to run fast he stayed where he was and the lion ran right by him. While looking deeply into the fire I was able to reflect on everything I did that day and I realized how amazing the day really was. The crackling fire was bright with excitement of what to come the following day. After taking a not so relaxing shower, due to the freezing water temperature, I went to bed listening to the animals form a harmonizing music in the distance.
There was no time to waste in the morning, because the leopard release had to be done in a timely fashion to make sure nothing went wrong. Therefore I got up right away and got ready for a hard day’s work filled with lots of memories. Before eating breakfast we went on a walk with 2 lion cubs. They cubs sure weren’t small; they were bigger than the 6 year old yellow lab that had raised them. The dog didn’t look like it was 6 and I know the lions had something to do with that. The fact that I was touching a lion was unreal to me. The lion’s smooth fur streamed through my fingertips and the thought of the danger those lions possessed didn’t make me scared at all. This was probably not a good thing. During a picture opportunity someone put their backpack down on the ground. The lions wasted no time and the backpack was gone with them running through the Bush. Ian ran after them and retrieved the valuable backpack. The lions knew just were to go and they lead us back to their home where we got back in the vehicle and returned to camp for a hearty breakfast of porridge. The porridge was good after diluting the substance with a lot of milk and sugar. Then there was no time to waste and we went right to the leopard. At the leopard cage we met Ian’s brother who had a huge scratch around his eye. We asked him what had happened and he explained that on his morning walk with Ikillyou she had scratched him. This proved that just playing around with the lions like the rangers do is quite dangerous. This is something that would never be allowed in the United States. Ian and his brother explained the equipment they would use for putting the leopard to sleep so that we could transport it to another location to release the leopard. They told us that we would not be allowed to help shoot the leopard and we had to go somewhere else because the leopard would sense that something was going on and it would be harder to put her to sleep. Therefore, while Ian and his brother went to take care of the darting we went to look at some more plants and trees. While standing in the Bush the sun was scorching our shoulders for the first time on the trip, I finally felt as if I was truly in Africa. I was also able to wear shorts for the first time on the trip. I was really happy. Exhausted from the sun we went to sit in the covered vehicles and waited. The ranger decided to take us on a quick drive before we went back to the leopard and so we went. On the way we saw some people at one of the ponds fishing. I was shocked that people would sit around and fish in such a dangerous environment. The leopard was put to sleep enough for us to go in and see her. She was still moving but could no longer stand. Ian gave her about 4 more shots to make sure she was totally out when we moved her. Ian told us that giving her more would not hurt her, just keep her asleep a little longer than expected. Once she was fully out Ian began to put a tracking collar on her so that they could keep tabs on where she was at and making sure she wasn’t in danger of getting hurt. This collar was to provide Ian and the other rangers with useful information for conservation efforts. While Ian put on her collar he asked me to hold the screws for the collar. I felt quite honored and involved in the process. Once the leopard was safe to touch we got to look at all of her sharp teeth and her retractable claws. She was truly an animal built for speed and hunting. I was one of the lucky ones that was going to be able to carry her out to relocate her. After taking multiple pictures and feeling her beautiful, vibrant fur, we had to pull her onto the stretcher. I took a firm grip on her skin but I didn’t grab far enough back on her, as my hand kept slipping and someone had to help me. Through her skin I could feel thick muscle. After she was on the stretcher and ready to go we lifted her up. I was in the middle section and the loops on the stretcher were kind of confusing. I ended up holding the tarp part, to try and keep the leopard from falling deep. I was semi successful but once we set the stretcher down I noticed that my finger was caked in blood from the tarp. I didn’t really care as I had just experienced something that I will never forget. Another group took the leopard off the stretcher and our job was complete. The rangers would take over from here and watch to make sure the leopard woke up and was able adjust to her surroundings. After all of our hard work we went back to camp for lunch. On the way back we came across some giraffe. The vehicle got as loud as it had ever been, when finding an animal. Although giraffes are a usual sight in the Bush, with all the rain they were hard to find under the tree. Jakes, seeming annoyed we had to stop so long to see an ordinary animal, let us take lots of pictures. From there, lunch at the camp was truly American with an African flare. We were served hot dogs, but just hot dogs, no buns or ketchup. Ketchup is not found in Africa, chili sauce was served at the camp instead, not quite the same.
Another drive would be a good way to end the sunny day, and that is just what we did. A couple minutes into the drive we stopped where Ian was standing. He asked for 5 volunteers that were willing to get a little dirty. Wanting to experience everything and have fun I volunteered. Our task was to catch 7 catfish in some standing water, so that we could relocate them before they died. I took off my white coat, just to be safe, and started the struggle. After my first step in the mud, my foot slipped through causing the mud to go almost up to my knee. There was no turning back now and I was determined. I quickly tried to grad one of the fish. No success. Instead I was stuck with a tail full of mud, straight to the face. Second try was a success. I grabbed hold of the fish’s slippery sides tightly. After catching all of the fish we made it back to the vehicle and getting on was a whole new challenge. I end up getting on the lowest section without dropping the fish. Final destination for the fish, hippo’s watering hole. That is exactly where we let the fish go free, by gently pushing the fish from our hands into the murky waters. Caked in mud and not sure if I was going to be able to clean off soon, I decided to let the mud dry to help the mud peel off sooner. The rangers decided to let us wash up at a hose at one of the houses. The water was cold, but getting the mud off felt better. At the house we visited a caracal. A caracal looks a lot like a cat, but with pointed ears. The caracal wanted nothing to do with us and kept running away when being touched so we decided to let the caracal be and go see the lion breeding project. At the lion breeding project the lions got right up to the fence, a couple feet from the vehicle. After making some noises with the vehicle, the lions responded with a roar. The sound they made was quite unique, not as I would have expected. In the distance other lions were responding and pretty soon there was a harmonizing song of lion roars. After fascinated by the lion’s talent, we went on one final search for animals. There we came across our elephants. We weren’t able to touch them, but got close enough to give us one last look at the Bush in which many of us thoroughly enjoyed.
Waiting at camp was a meal of sausage and steak. I personally didn’t care for it and ended up eating the vegetables. Once dinner was through it was time to pack. I began my quest to get everything I needed in my suitcase for my long journey home. I was distracted, by our travel manager, Alan. He was down at the table area telling stories. I decided to go and listen and found his stories quite inspirational. He told us how he was almost killed 5 times and how each time that happened it had changed his world in some way. Alan told us about the time when there was a guard in the back of his classroom with a loaded gun ready to shoot if he taught anything he wasn’t supposed, and by the third day the guard was doing the homework and Alan had possession of the gun. Or the story of the time he was with a group at Kruger and was called saying that a plane was coming to get him so that he could be the tour guide for Oprah, but Alan refused, because he had a commitment to the student he was touring at that time. It is people like Alan, who make the world a great place to live in. After the bedtime stories, I went to sleep for my last time in South Africa.
We awoke early to eat breakfast of eggs and oatmeal, before boarding the bus for another long day of travel. Trying to catch up on some must needed sleep I took a nap before stopping at a local gas station. At the gas station many of us found that Wimpy, a fast food restaurant, truly lives up to its name’s expectations. I was the first to order and 20 minutes later I still didn’t have my food. Eventually, I got it and found that ketchup really isn’t tomato sauce. Their tomato sauce is like some clumpy red sauce of vegetables, not good at all to say the least. We got back on the bus and traveled for a while until we stopped at another gas station where many of us bought snack for the plane rides home.
Upon arrival at the airport we said our goodbyes to the tour guides and did some last minute souvenir shopping. I was the unlucky one who ended up getting a middle seat in between 2 strangers. The strangers ended up being friends and asked if I would scoot to the window, there was no arguing, as that is exactly where I wanted to be. The adventures then began. The two guys put on quite a show that night. They obviously had a little too much to drink before getting on the plane, let alone on the plane while flying. One of the guys offered me his nasal spray because I blew my nose. Of course I refused, but the thought of what he did kind of made me laugh. I fell asleep and woke up to find all of their magazines and papers on my lap. They were still asleep, one of them sleeping in the other’s lap. One of them also hit me in his sleep as he brought his hands down. They were Russians I later found out. After we got off the plane I heard even better stories about what happened to my fellow travelers that were sitting behind me. The guys kept putting their seats back and their hands over their seats, inches from a person’s face. Also, when I had fallen asleep so had one of the guys and his food was still on his tray. He ended up flinging that off in his sleep. The stewardess was not impressed and didn’t wake them up for breakfast in the morning. We arrived in Germany and said our goodbyes to the other groups and teachers, hoping that someday our paths will cross again and we will embark on more adventures together. The layover in Germany was long, but we were able to stand the time. On the next plane I was in the middle seat again, and there were no Russian friends to scoot me over. The ride was extremely long and I couldn’t fall asleep. I found myself watching movies and counting down the minutes before I was back in the United States. In Chicago, we were able to get some American food before finally leaving for Cedar Rapids. The layover was long there too, and all of us were anxious to get home and see our family so the time didn’t go by any faster. Once in Cedar Rapids, Iowa our families greeted us. Our unbelieveable adventure had ended. Although we were sad to leave all the adventures and lessons of our travels, each one of us was happy to be able to have a nice warm shower, a meal of American food, and our comfy beds to sleep in.


Liz said...

Good information on tne activity at Kruger. Zoos will never be the same for you ! THanks for taking us with you for the ride through your blog.

Loisann said...

I enjoyed reading your blog........I'm glad you continue to travel, travel is the best classroom! The best to you. Lois Hoper, People to People Delegation Leader

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Essential Programs Details

Duration 12 days
When June 2nd - 13th, 2009
Focus Wildlife Research/Conservation
Political History