Sorry for the long delay but we are still alive and well. We’ve got quite a lot to write about so I won’t waffle on any more…..
Our flights from Brazil to South Africa (Rio to Sao Paulo to Jo’berg to Hoedspruit) ran pretty smoothly considering our previous flights and we arrived in Hoedspruit on the 1st July extremely jet lagged but very pleased to be there. Our last flight in a 50 seater propeller plane had been a little bumpy so we were glad to have our feet back on the ground. After a little wait at the airport, probably one of the smallest in the world, we were picked up by the owner of the guest house, The Blue Cottages, where we were to be spending the night. The Cottages had been recommended by Enkosini, the company we had booked our time on the Makalali conservation project with, and we were very impressed, even though it was a little more expensive than we had thought. We spent the rest of the day asleep, only getting up for dinner where we met Shai, from Brazil, who was also joining the project the following day.
following day, Monday 2nd, we were picked up at 9am by Hannes, one of the rangers on the project, and the rest of the group. We all crammed in to the back of a truck and headed to Hoedspruit town, if you can call it that. We were all dropped off at a small area of shops designed for tourists, with a typical ‘African’ theme with gift shops, a tourist centre, a Spar, a couple of pubs (one Irish), a café, a Wimpy and an Internet/Photograph shop. This is where we ritually spent our Monday mornings for the following 3 weeks, starting in the café for breakfast, hitting the net then getting supplies from Spar to last us the week. At around 2pm we’d then head to the Makalali reserve stopping at the ‘bottle stop’ for much needed alcohol supplies before making the rather grueling, bumpy and dusty ride back to camp which took a good hour an a half.
Makalali Game Reserve is a 30,000 ha game reserve made up of a handful of different private lodges not far from the Kruger National Park. The reserve is home to the Big 4 (there are no Buffalo at this
time because the Tuberculosis free ones are too expensive) as well as a host of other species. The reserve is also playing an extremely important roll in the scientific research of both elephant and lion contraception.
Elephant contraception: it sounds like a pretty strange idea but it’s very important and becoming increasingly necessary. Makalali (with Audrey as one of the head researchers) has been running a contraception programme among it’s elephants since 2000 and has been able to completely control its population numbers which is extremely important when you only have a certain amount of land for these animals to occupy. You cannot have too many elephants for your reserve as the land will not be able to sustain them nor your other animals - your mini-ecosystem will collapse. Makalali has managed its herds by employing immunocontraception - a pig protein is used which makes the female’s egg unidentifiable to the male’s sperm, so they end up swimming around with no where to go. Unlike previous attempts where a contraceptive drug based on sex hormones was used, this method has not produced any unwanted side effects; the animals all still behave as they should the only difference is that
the females do not become pregnant. The programme also takes into consideration the importance of motherhood within a herd and refrains from administrating contraception to all of the females, allowing a couple to reproduce then contracepting them next time.
Immunocontraception has also been practiced in a number of other reserves as well as Kruger National Park, which has a huge problem with elephant overpopulation. Unfortunately because of the previous bad press about other contraceptions and the cost, Kruger is holding back on starting this programme in full and is still considering culling some of its elephant population. This is not good news for the elephants and neither is it great news for Kruger as countries world-wide are threatening to boycott South Africa if this happens. There are also huge concerns about what would happen to the ivory produced from the culls as it would be a waste to burn it as it could be sold and the money plowed back into SA conservation but if it was sold it could open up the black market for it again.
Makalali has also been at the forefront of vasectomy in male elephants, 3 of which have been vasectomised to show
that although it’s not the best contraceptive method because it can reverse itself and is very difficult and expensive, it can still be used if the need arose.
We were extremely lucky in our second week on the project as they decided to remove the radio collars on the three bulls that had been vasectomised. We had to help track the animals so that when the helicopter came to dart them they could be found. We then got to touch them while they were tranquilized and watch as the collars were removed and the animals were woken up.
Lion contraception: Although this has been implemented at Makalali it’s not to the same extent as the elephant programme and at the moment is not as crucial but shows that it can be achieved and could be used to control lion numbers before they become as out of hand as the elephants.
For our first two weeks on the project we were based at ‘Twines’, a three building camp (kitchen, bedrooms and t.v/computer/lecture/staff rooms) set in the middle of the reserve with only an elephant wire set 2m off the ground surrounding it. We had probably the best of
the rooms as it was ensuit but they were all a lot nicer than we had expected with pretty comfy beds and even a wardrobe (we were rather excited about unpacking for two weeks!). There was a large lawn in front of our room with a small pool (more like an empty pond), a swing and a campfire surrounded by chairs in the middle of a boma (fenced area). During the day we’d have nyala and warthogs grazing on the lawn and at night we’d sit around the fire, have dinner and listen to the nocturnal animals. Not bad! We’d all take it in turns to cook or wash up, which wasn’t a bad way of doing it and we got to try some new foods (like Poijte - a kind of stew cooked over the fire) and got to cook some of our own favourites like jacket potatoes and spag bol. Twines also had two resident half domestic/half African wildcats, Colin and Brian who we grew quite attached too. Our room was lucky enough to be the ‘catroom’ so when we headed to bed at night we’d find them curled up on our beds where they would remain for
the rest of the night taking up most of the space! Luckily for Dani, they slightly preferred Dan.
Our itinerary for the week would basically go like this: Monday was spent in town doing odd jobs and collecting the newbees, Tuesday - Friday we’d go for a drive from 7am-11am, have lunch and maybe a lecture (we had one on the elephant contraception programme, snakes spiders and scorpions, how to approach dangerous game on foot and learnt some Zulu) then go on an afternoon drive/night drive (this was one of Dan’s favourite times of the day as he loves to ‘spotlight’ the animals!) from 3pm - 7pm, then dinner and bed by about 9pm, Saturday we’d go for a morning drive and then relax in the afternoon (one day the guys played football against some of the rangers, another we went and watched Andrews, one of the other rangers on the project, run a half marathon) and have a BBQ or go to the pub (at another lodge about 20mins away) and then Sunday we’d relax, recover and then play touch rugby, well Dan would play and I would watch. On the drives we’d all have a different job
to do: one person would note down the general sighting, another the big game like lions and elephants, another the nocturnal animals, another the birds and another would navigate (keep track of which road we were on and the coordinates). We would then enter all this information into the computer during the week so that Audrey could collate it at a later date.
We were extremely lucky on our first day with regards to what we saw. Our first main sighting was a herd of elephants, which was awesome but Dani was unfortunately stuck recording them when she was desperate to be photographing them! That day we also saw a group of about 5 hyaenas, one of which came right up to the car to check us out, and two female sub-adult lions who Andrews tracked into the bush, then took us into the bush in the jeep to find them (when they said ‘off-road’ I didn’t quite imagine this!) and then they just sat on the road in front of us for ages. We also saw all the general animals like giraffe, zebra, warthogs, nyala, kudu, impala, hippos etc. That evening we had some new arrivals, Jacks and
Jamie (soon to be known only as ‘Scotland’) from Scotland and Chris from Canada, who we spent a lot of time with over the following weeks.
During our first week we had two more amazing big cat sightings. Our first one was two male cheetahs, V and Scar, about 200m away from Twines. Dan, Shai and I had just returned from an afternoon/evening walk when Hannes got a call on the radio that the cats were about. So we jumped in the jeep and haired off to find them. We were bombing round a corner 200m from the camp when we almost drove straight into them! It was so incredible because it was just our jeep and them in the jeeps spotlights and they were not fussed at all. They just walked straight towards us up the road. We turned round and followed them until they lay down in the grass by the side of the road literally a stones throw from Twines. We picked them up again the next day and had an amazing sighting of them again just walking along the road. Everyone was surprised at how tall they actually are but they are incredibly beautiful animals.
Our next big cat sighting was that Saturday, just before we went to watch Andrews do his run. It was just Dan, Shai and I who were with Andrews when he got a call about 4 lions (the Garonga 4), he wasn’t going to respond but luckily we badgered him into it and went hairing over to see them. Thank goodness we did as about 10mins after we started our journey we heard over the radio that they had made a kill so when we arrived the four of them were sat eating it about 20m from the road. We off-roaded it until we were pretty close, a little too close as we’d actually driven in between them, there were 3 to our left and one in the grass next to the jeep on our right who we hadn’t seen! There was only one other jeep there and they left pretty soon after we arrived, so we got a really good viewing of them. You could hear the crunching of bones and chewing of meat and a couple of times one of them moved to another area so walked past the jeep. At one point one came so close that
both Shai and I were pretty scared that it might jump in the jeep! But it didn’t. We didn’t get to spend more than about 20mins with them but it was one of our favourite lion sightings and it was really good to finally see some male lions, even though their manes were more like mohawks!
Along with our big cat sightings we also had a couple of interesting elephant ones. Well the first one I’ll mention wasn’t so much of a sighting as a hearing. On one of the nights of our first week a whole herd of elephants came to drink at the reservoir across the road from Twines. They also decided to have a bit of a munch as well and surrounded Twines eating from the trees there. A couple of them came as close as 10ft from us and our rooms and we seriously thought that they had broken the elephant wire as one was standing on the lawn eating from a tree in the garden! It was really cool just sitting having dinner when all we could hear was the snapping of branches and the creaking as trees were pushed over all around us.
The second interesting elephant one was when we got charged by a young bull. He started about 20m away and stopped about 10m. My heart was in my mouth but luckily Mike yelled a few choice words at it and it backed off. Little were we to know that this wouldn’t be our only mock charge! Oh and on one trip Andrews literally mistook Dan blowing his nose to be an elephant trumpeting. He slammed on the breaks and told us all to listen for the elephants that were near by!
Our second two weeks on the project were spent at Bushcamp. We moved from Twines to Bushcamp, half a dozen permanent tents, a kitchen tent, a dining table tent and a campfire, about 20mins drive from Twines in the middle of the bush with no fences or elephant wire. There were a maximum of 6 of us there at once. We all had our own tents and own bathroom which consisted of a toilet and a tap in a shed and a bag with a nozzle for a shower. It was actually a lot better than it sounds, although it did get pretty chilly at night! At Bushcamp
we would follow the same routine as at Twines, the only difference being that we didn’t have to record any data while on drives and also went for more walks. These two weeks were designed to teach us more about the bush, survival skills and how to track animals than Twines was. Dani preferred Bushcamp to Twines, because she preferred the tents, the atmosphere, being more in the bush and surprisingly because she preferred the showers! Dan preferred Twines because he likes his luxuries and the data recording gave him something to do, although he did like the tent.
While at Bushcamp we did a couple of walks approaching rhino on foot. Our first one didn’t quite go to plan when while looking for fresh tracks in the jeep we bumped into the rhino themselves! However we left them for 20mins and then tracked them on foot. The second time we walked for about 4 hours tracking them and didn’t find them then on the way back to the jeep we ran into them, a mother, a baby and a big male. It was very cool if a little scary. We also had some more excitement on foot when
we left the jeep to have a look at what some vultures had found and ran into a couple of cheetah on a kill. Luckily they were more afraid of us than we were of them. We returned to them in the jeep and got a pretty good view of them just lying in the grass next to the kill, rather stuffed.
Another day at bushcamp we had some more tranquilising excitement. Two of the female sub-adult lions were to be tranquilised then transported to another reserve where they would take part in a white lion breeding programme. We managed to find these females so we waited for Ross to bring the tranquilisers. We got to watch as he set them all up and then as he darted one of the lions. We were all super excited at the prospect of actually getting to touch one of these amazing animals but unfortunately the dart hit the lions leg so she wasn’t effected by the drugs and thus they got away.
Our scariest moment on the project was our second mock charge by an elephant. We were heading back to Bushcamp from Twines one evening after dark, bombing it
along the roads quite fast with the torch and headlights going when we turned a corner and there’s this rather annoyed elephant, Kwatille (which means grumpy!). She was not at all impressed so Andrews turned off the engine and the lights and we just sat there in the dark waiting, not even breathing. She trumpeted at us, waving her ears and trunk around so Andrews let the car roll back but the breaks squeaked when we stopped and she charged us, luckily stopping short of the car. She then wandered off into the bush and all we could hear was the rustling of the branches and all we could see was her trunk in the air faintly lit by the moon. Then our radio goes off and she charges us again, still stopping short of us. At this point we were all absolutely petrified, still sitting there in the dark just listening to her moving and at last Andrews decided it was time to go. We razzed off as fast as we could go, which wasn’t very fast at all as it was a very bumpy windy little road and we could hear her crashing through the bushes after us
trumpeting away! We were all desperately willing Andrews to drive faster and finally we left the sounds of a rather ticked off elephant behind us.
On our first Thursday at Bushcamp we had a sleepout where we slept out under the stars in the middle of the reserve. We had to walk to the site using clues and the skills we had learnt to guide us. It was good fun and we managed to get there in about 2 hours which wasn’t bad, especially as we were slightly held up by the 5 rhino that we bumped into! The guys from Twines met us there. The evening was good fun, Hannes cooked us all dinner on the fire and then we all took an hours watch throughout the night to keep an eye out for hyaena or anything else that took a fancy to us. When we weren’t on watch we were sleeping on a tarpaulin in our sleeping bags. It was awesome to look up and see all the stars but it was absolutely freezing! Neither of us have ever been so cold. You’d wake up every 20mins or so and there was just no way of getting
warm! It was still a very good experience though.
We were both sad to leave Makalali. We’d made some good friends there, had some brilliant fun and seen some amazing things. It is definitely one of the highlights of our trip.
Some of the daft questions the Mike and Hannes had been asked:
Why do the impala and leopard sleep together in the tree? (asked by a French lady while looking at a leopard kill in a tree)
Do giraffe hunt in herds? (asked by an American guy)
Does the sun set in the West in the Southern hemisphere? (asked by a supposedly intelligent vet student!... When being told this story the American ‘jungle guide’ who was also working on the project asked “well does it?” to which Mike replied “what do you think?” and he returned with “No of course it doesn’t, it’s the opposite way round”…and he was serious….we just smiled and left it.
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