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Published: September 18th 2009
Out cat tracking
And the scenery's not bad, either.
We arrive at NamibRand Nature Reserve and there's no rest for the wicked - Tim and Sofia, one of the other volunteers, are straight out (while Sue takes a well-deserved rest!) go for a drive and climb a small hill to get a good vantage point to try and pick up some VHF signals from the collars that the cats are fitted with before they're released. No joy, unfortunately, they're elusive creatures. My, it's windy!
The next morning the changing season makes itself known. Although this is semi-desert, it's still spring and a cold front has moved in bringing moisture from the sea. It's very cold but we're blessed with a spectacular sunrise with mist rolling on through the valley as we saddle up and make off to find those errant cats.
Later on that day, we get our snake induction from Lars and Christine, the German research biologists responsible for the project in NamibRand. The weather is warming up now and snakes are become a bit more common. Yikes! We get the low-down on the sorts of snakes, the type of venom, what to do. All very sobering. Interestingly, we find that the Black Mamba isn't
actually black, which I'm sure will disappoint a lot of Kill Bill fans.
The next day, we're off to find the 'coalition' of five previously-tame male cheetahs that have been released. Hanging around in groups of blokes is one of the strategies that cheetahs sometimes adopt. The group of boys, who we ended up nick-naming the 'Coalition of the Lazy' since they were previously tame they don't wander too far from the area they like and are pretty easy to track. We're there pretty early and are very lucky to catch five swaggering male cheetahs slowing prowling their way through their territory. They're way off in the distance but it's an amazing sight to behold through the binoculars.
It's a bit cold and windy the cats decide to have bit of a lie-down until it warms up, so we're up and down on the back of the pick-up truck trying to spot where they are. Tim has got the best binoculars, which are massive and the kind of things that a u-boat commander would have used. Then disaster strikes. Lesson for the day - do not try to climb in and out of pick-up truck while holding something
Note the gold teeth.
in your hands. As Tim jumps down he lands awkwardly, twisting his right angle. Ouch.
Sue has a moment where the rest of the trip flashes before her eyes coupled with the thought of a 6 hr journey to Windhoek hospital with a husband and his broken ankle! Thankfully, although it's very painful and there's lots of swearing and endorphins flowing, toes can be wiggled and no skin is broken. Quick application of ice and ibuprofen keeps the swelling and pain down and Tim spends the rest of the day trying not to strain himself!
While we wait for the cheetahs to do something interesting with their day and for painkillers to take effect, Christine takes us for bit of a tour of the surrounding area. It's wall-to-wall with springbok (possibly the cutest and most stupid of antelope who have a habit of bouncing around like kangaroos when startled), we see a kudu, some giraffe, and the more mobile among us go have a gander at some rock dassies (which although looking like overgrown guinea pigs are in fact related to elephants - bizarre). We also see some singing stones - rocks that are almost pure chunks of
iron ore that actually ring like tuning forks when you hit them. Back at the spot where we left the lazy lads we see some heads poking up in the grass but they don't do requests. We head back to the house and that night Tim has a long think about what he's done.
The next day we drive over to where we expect to find cheetah N001 'Mom'. She's in a valley with a road and we luckily pick up her VHF signal. We've now got about 15 minutes to drive along a baseline and take VHF readings, not the GPS locations and take a bearing of the signal. Back at base we're shown the software that allows us to enter this information, plot the relevant lines and get a location with tolerance. All very scientific. We do the best we can we what we've got, but you can clearly see the difference between using the cheaper, more rugged and longer-lived VHF collars verses the more accurate but fragile GPS locators.
Now that the moon is rising later in the night, on clear nights the sky at night here is the most amazing thing we've ever seen.
Sky at Night
Patrick Moore eat your heart out.
The arc of the Milky Way is clearly visible and one of the most beautiful things you've ever seen - you can make out the purples in the dust clouds and everything.
Part of what we're doing here is noting where we find carcasses and determining if they've been killed by cheetahs or leopards. It's CSI NamibRand! The victim is a springbok, we'd say about 9 years old judging by the horns. The gold teeth reveal themselves to actually be the result of calcification, ruling out any financial motivation of our killer. Footprints leaving the scene are too small to be any of our usual suspects and the wound to the face indicates jackals. Later on we chance upon the picked clean remains of another victim. 20 foot up a tree! Another serial killer - this time our prime suspect, Mr Leopard.
Given how hard it's been to track down the cats Tim has been discussing with Christine some technical ideas and thoughts about how they might get their hands on some kind of remote aircraft to help with the VHF tracking. The next day we have a 'morning off' in preparation for our night observations later on
The strange circles of Soussevlei
Unlikely to be kids with planks of wood out here. Perhaps it's aliens. Unexplained to this day. Where's Reg Presley?
and Tim writes up pretty much a full proposal to run by the project head honcho. We'll see what comes of that.
The night observation consists of two stints - late evening and early morning. We get our best bit of kit yet - some image amplification goggles. Doing the observation is a bit like a cross between being Simon King and some special forces operative and we get some great observations of a polecat and porcupines rustling about around the back of the house. Getting up at 3.30 in the morning to do the observations at the waterhole is a big ask and what with the overcast night a late-rising moon our guest stars don't put in much of an appearance. Ah well - you can't have it all and the porcupines were great.
The next night we go to bed and in the silence what sounds like a sonic boom rings out - pretty disconcerting. The next morning is the start of our last day and Lars takes us for a climb up the local mini-mountain to take some readings and look at the view. Plus it's good Peru preparation for Sue!
It's well-overcast as
Weaver tree and us
Bird's nest, African style.
we make our assault of what is essentially a massive pile of iron-oxide boulders not unlike what you'd probably find on Mars. Sue's obviously missed her vocation as a free-climber and is clearly wasted as a professional indemnity solicitor.
When we get to the summit we can see right across the valley where a thunderhead looms darkly. Booms in the night explained! The big rock at the top is bit of a scramble which Tim has a crack at while Sue bites her nails looking on - this could all go horribly wrong! Tim goes to stand up when he gets to the top and at the moment thunder rolls across the sky. There can be only one! No sword though - will have to make do with a VHF antenna, holding which standing on the top of a mountain with lightening bolts not too far off doesn't seem the cleverest of things to have ever done.
We finish off our last day with another search for the Coalition of the Lazy. As we enter into their valley and are casting our antenna about we spot almost by accident (Sue and Sofia: 'Look over there - there's a
Sunset over NamibRand
Our view as the sun goes down - that's the 'mountain' we climbed earlier!
jackal, no - it's a bat-eared fox, no - it's an African wild cat, no - it's a wild leopard!') yes, it's a wild leopard. No collar so not one of the released ones. It's a magical moment as she runs up and down the foot of the mountain. What a beautiful creature. We're so taken aback that no-one has the presence of mind to take a picture. What a great finish to our time in NamibRand.
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