Taming Cheetahs and Other Wild Animals

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October 22nd 2012
Published: October 22nd 2012
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For this blog I don’t know where to start my friends. I hate to leave some things out but alas sometimes I have to. I shall start upon my golfing adventure with my dear friend and fellow volunteer Dudley. The previous night we had spent a long night at the Komga Club, a famous spot in Komga known for its prolific braai (barbecue) as well as its occasional late nights of “celebration.” Lucky for us our night was quite a “celebration” as Anne, Dudley and I did not arrive home until about midnight which for us is quite a night. Sunday was a typical morning, waking up at about 8 am to eat scones and prepare for church. After church, Anne, Margaret, Jeff and Suzanne went off to the beach for lunch while Dudley and I decided to stay back at Open Arms as we were asked to go golfing later that afternoon with a very nice gentleman named Jamie at 3 pm. So as Dudley and I watched everyone leave we spent the day quite relaxed and leisurely waiting for our friend Jamie to drive up to Open Arms to pick us up. Unfortunately, neither of us had his phone number so we were acting on blind faith that he would pick us up. As 3 pm passed, and 4 pm Dudley and I felt dumb for not going to to the breach with the others. But at about 4:15, Jamie came rolling up in his backi (pickup truck). Dudley hopped in the shotgun while I climbed up the back truck and stood as we rocked down our extremely bumpy road.

15 minutes later we arrived to Komga golf course. While I appreciate golf and hope to learn to someday be a skilled golfer, I can by no means claim myself to be a golfer. But we were in a leisurely golf round as we all shared the same bag and same clubs. The fact that there could be a little 9-hole golf course here in Komga was astounding. Jamie discussed how there was no grounds crew and that it was up to the members of the golf committee to take care of the course. Considering it was just a bunch of farmers that make up the committee, the golf course is in decent shape. For those familiar with Peter Jans in Evanston, imagine that but rougher fairways fairways and nicer greens. However, the course was much longer than Peter Jans with only 2 par threes. It was very nice to have a little break since as many of those parents know, caring for kids is a 24/7 job and with 51 children it can be quite taxing.

It is a 9-hole course with about 4 par-5s, 3 par-4s, and 2 par-3s. We played our 9 holes of twilight golf in some of the most interesting conditions I personally have ever experienced. The course was similar to Peter Jans in Evanston for those who have “privileged” that course – extremely rough, almost nonexistent fairways and greens with some rough patches. Nonetheless, it was a great time to get to know one another and have a relaxing round of twilight golf.

The following week was a term break for all of the kids. So as a fun activity we brought the children to the beach in groups. In one word, the kids were fantastic at the beach. They were all convinced they were able to “swim” though their method of swimming was often to lay on their bellies and walk on the bottom with their hands. Chinsa West beach is quite rocky and has many different little coves so we found a nice cove with rocks protecting the kids from the currents and jumped in. The older kids had a blast rolling all over the sand, dunking their heads under water and jumping in the waves. Even so, the kids had a BLAST jumping in the waves often using me as a shield from the oncoming large waves.

A few days past and then it was the Komga Show. The weekend had one of the biggest events for the Komga Year: The Komga Show. The Komga Show is a 3 day horse show with a big “braii” and dancing at night. On Saturday night, Margaret, Dudley and I decided to spend a night at the show. The place was packed with every Afrikaner from Komga and the dance floor was packed. We spent the night dancing and I personally tried and epically failed in my attempt to learn the traditional Afrikaner dance which is some sort of swing dance.

The next day, we decided to bring the children in to the show to watch the horses vand have a treat. Many people in the Xhosa culture are afraid of animals such as dogs that Americans take for granted. Therefore, as we attempted to introduce our kids to the horses several were quite timid. Thankfully, Debbie, who is one of our friends in town, brought one of her ponies over to the kids and slow introduced all of them to the horse. Debbie is a wonderful woman who owns about 12 horses. I have spoken to her repeatedly about how my family has owned a horse in the past and she has invited me to go riding with her soon. However, back to the story. Thanks to Debbie’s experience with horses and her calm presence, she was able to actually get all of the kids to go for a short pony ride. It was truly remarkable as Debbie was able to transform children who were trembling in fear 10 minutes prior into smiling, proud horseback riders. In fact, after going for the pony ride, several of the children had a discussion with me over who was the best rider. After the pony ride, Dudley graciously paid for all of the children to go on what resembled “bumper cars.” These were far from any bumper cars I have seen in America. The bumper car track consisted of 4 beat up, ancient electric cars on a 15 x 10 ft track. Even so, the kids went wild in the slow moving cars talking about who was the best driver for days on end. It is really beautiful to see that something so simple can bring so much joy in these kids. Watching the kids laugh and smile really makes me appreciate the simple joys in life.

When I wasn’t playing with the kids this week, I was finishing repainting, tiling, and plastering one of our rondavels. After spending what seems like forever working in that room I believe I only need two more days of work to refinish some of the bunk beds that the little boys had decided to turn to an art project with sharpies and to tiling one of the bathtubs in one of the bathrooms. How long those beds will stay looking nice is a mystery but I think it won’t be long before one of those 10 little boys makes the beds into another canvas of stick-figure art. Reworking that room has been much more time consuming than I originally anticipated and over break I got several of the older boys into the room to help me paint. At first they were very hesitant questioning, “Why do I have to do that?” They tended to be a little sloppy and I needed to do a bit of retouching but they covered a lot of area working quite fast. They actually ended up enjoying the work since I blasted music on my laptop that they enjoyed like: Chris Brown, David Guetta, Rhianna and such. By the end of the day, the boys were bellowing Super Bass by Niki Minaj and actually asked me to help out in the room the next day. Unfortunately all that was left was for me to do some trimming and some painting up about 12 feet in the air, neither of which I would want the boys to work on.

Later that week, we decided to go to a Game Reserve for the day. So I hopped into the off-road landrover vehicle unsure of what to expect. We quickly got moving and I was stunned by all of the animals and landscape. The reserve consisted of several 1000 acres of diverse habitats from forestry to grassland. After about 30 minutes of crossing creeks and bouncing up and down on beat up dirt roads, we arrived to a herd of approximately 20-30 zebras and gazelle grazing on the grass. Our group was particularly enraptured by one baby zebra that was about two weeks old according to our guide. However, if anyone is ever interested in purchasing a baby zebra they cost about $1000 - $4000. I think as a gift to my mother when I return to the US I shall bring a baby zebra to join our 3 dogs.

We continued our journey carefully navigating around crevices and large cracks in the dirt road. Soon we came upon a herd of about 10 giraffes. While I have seen hundreds of pictures of giraffes, in person these animals are enormous. They have extremely muscular bodies and are not at all the slow moving, lazy animals I anticipated. Rather, they can move quick but at the same time gracefully looking at ease as they cover extreme amounts of land with each enormous stride. The spots on a giraffe are like a human fingerprint, they are unique for each animal. Additionally, you can tell a giraffe’s age by its spots, the darker they are the older that giraffe is.

At this point we had been traveling about 90 minutes when we arrived to a large, fenced-in secure area that was protected by double fences. If you have seen Jurassic Park you would understand what I mean. We stopped at the first fence and our guide entered in the passcodes and we passed both gates into the enclosure. The first thing I noticed inside this arena was the stench of death. Next to our car were the rotting corpses of several cattle that appeared to be ripped apart by some large animal. We drove on in extreme anticipation for what we saw next which was 10 white lions and some regular lions. The 10 white lions in the game reserve were among the 300 that are left in the world. The lions were truly white and appeared almost albino but this was due to their original habitat of white grass. I was shocked as our vehicle that had no guard rails or protection kept inching closer and closer to the white lions until I was about 15 feet from a large female lion that was staring me down. I was honestly afraid of this one lion as the rest paid no attention to our car but this one female lion’s eyes and mine locked. It was quite eerie as I kept snapping pictures, unable to believe what I was seeing when I noticed that there was several lions on the other side of the car as well. We were surrounded by lions.

Suddenly, at the roar of the eldest, alpha male lion all of the lions got up and started to approach our car….

No I’m just kidding but the female lion staring at us did in fact stand up but ignored us as it walked away towards another pack of lions. The alpha male lion was huge, with a bushy white mane that commanded respect. All in all, the lions were quite lethargic and spent most of the time during our visit lounging. Our guide disclosed that these lions sleep approximately 20 hours a day, like house cats, but in those 4 hours of alertness they feed and hunt – hence the bone yard near the entrance to the enclosure. This is why the reserve does not do tours during the late hours, when the lions are active and could maul visitors. In fact, one time they had a car break down in the lion cage and had to do an emergency evacuation. They got all of the people away from the enclosure with no problems but the next day, the car was found all chewed up

We travelled through the double gates again getting one last look at the animal carcasses as we left the white lions behind. We quickly exited and began off-roading again surrounded by various animals such as Zebras, Wildebeest (which I ate the other night at the game reserve for dinner. I would not recommend it to those reading my blog – it is quite tough), Gazelles, Giraffes, Antelopes, crazy looking shiny blue birds, and especially the Rhinos. These Rhinos were huge although I was selfishly disappointed that the rhinos lack horns. The game reserve cuts off the horns on these animals (like cutting off a finger nail) to discourage poachers from entering the park and killing the animals for their horns which can retail at $85,000 an ounce! The rhinos were awesome though and while they are normally solitary animals, the ones in this park form a herd with the mother, father and baby travelling together which is unheard of. After the rhinos, we eclipsed our 4 hour mark and began journeying back saying goodbye to all of the animals.

Afterwards we had lunch at the reserve and then we were asked if we wanted to meet the cheetahs. So I cautiously walked into the cheetah pen with Anne and our visiting accountant Jane from the Phoenix. After walking in what seemed like forever in anticipation to seeing some cheetahs, I heard a brush of leaves and turned to see three cheetahs laying down on the ground. I gingerly walked towards the cheetahs and began so cautiously pet these majestic animals. The cheetahs were very slender and appear every bit built purely for speed. I touched the paws and admired the enormous claws that could easily tear me apart. Suddenly, I was startled as I felt and heard a low, deep grumble from the cheetahs – almost a growl. I was terrified, I did not want to get attacked by one of these cheetahs let alone 2 or three at the same time. However, quickly I realized that the cheetahs were not growling but rather purring.

If I could best describe the cheetahs, I would say they were like large house cats except instead of hunting mice they kill wildebeest and springbok. In fact, one of the cheetahs I was petting at that very moment had killed two large animals on the previous Monday in the game reserve with astonishing speed as the video is posted on the game parks website. Search Inkwenkwezi Private Game Reserve Online and realize that those cheetahs were the ones I tamed.

The following weekend, the two girl volunteers, Dudley and I decided to spend the weekend in Durban which on a map should be a 7 hour drive but with South African highways took us about 9ish. The scenery of the drive was spectacular as we winded between and over small mountains. While it rained for the second half the drive, through the mists I would have sworn I was in Ireland rather than South Africa. Up and down the mountainous country side were brown specs of sheep and their herders close by walking with them as they grazed. The landscape was extremely lush as we alternated from forest to hillside that was so green it almost appeared spray painted. However, the whole drive I was constantly reminded that despite this landscape, this is not Ireland as I would see the villages intermittently. Finally after what seemed like an unending journey, we arrived at our hostel on Thursday night and I was ecstatic to connect to WIFI for the first time in my 2 months here and I made full use of it. We chilled that night, ate some Indian food (Durban has the highest Indian population for any city in the world outside of Asia), and discussed life while overlooking the Indian Ocean.

The following day we went up North to Umhlanga Rocks which is nice resort town of South Africa where many of the Johannesburg wealthy have summer homes and such. It was ostentatious to say the least. I could not comprehend how this area could have so much wealth when 20 minutes away there were sheet metal shacks with no electricity that could collapse in a rainstorm. In Umhlanga Rocks, most vehicles were Mercedes Benz, BMWs, Audis, Land Rovers, or Lexus and the restaurants expensive and very modern. It was a little too much for me after spending two months in an orphanage but it was still nice to have a break to relax. We discovered a nice Irish bed and breakfast which the owner gave us a great discount since we were volunteers so we could afford to stay there. That night I looked everywhere for a place that would broadcast the ND-Stanford game. But alas, even the Hooters in South Africa did not have the game. Heartbroken, our group of volunteers went to an Indian restaurant for dinner. I thought I was brilliant by accepting the 110 rand (about $13) all the Indian food you can eat deal and loaded up my place with a little of everything. After about two bites I realized I was in trouble. The spices absolutely crushed my stomach, my mouth was on fire, and suddenly my appetite was at a loss. For those who know me well, I have a strong passion for food and especially large amounts of it. Though, that night is the only night in my memory where a meal got the best of me and I was down for the count barely touching my plate. Thankfully, our waiter bailed me out by not charging me for the meal and gave me some free ice cream to save my stomach from imploding. I can tell you that I left Durban with a great reverence for all of the Indian Spices as those can really get you.

On Saturday, we ventured into downtown area of Durban. This was my first experience in a large, African city. Durban is the 3rd largest city in South Africa with about 3 million people. The city itself is modern with many medium sized buildings but the roads are filled with hawkers ready to sell you something. Moreover, the streets are filled with pedestrians constantly walking all over the place; when driving in Durban you have to be extremely cognizant since at any moment someone could walk out right in front of your car. I spent most of the afternoon wandering the city with Margaret and Anne. At one point we went into the street markets wherein we were the only people visibly not from Durban. There I saw people selling dead birds, some sort of unknown lizards, assortments of barks, dead baby crocs, and everything crazy you could imagine for traditional African uses. The market consisted of shops on both sides of a long winding dirt path with It was quite wild walking from little stand to little stand having people staring at you most likely in some disbelief that three very white American-looking people were strolling through their market place. Even so, everyone was extremely nice and helpful and tried to answer our questions though they usually didn’t speak English.

Soon after, we decided to check out the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere. Right when we walked in was during one of their daily prayer ceremonies in which outsiders are strictly prohibited from entering and no women regardless of faith are allowed entrance. But as we were about to turn away, a man came up to us and invited us into the mosque. In disbelief, we entered the mosque and witnessed the Call to Prayer by all of the Muslim men. Anne and Margaret especially were shocked as they said this was something they would most likely never experience again since no women are ever allowed in during this prayer and especially non-Muslims. After the prayer was over, many of the men came over to us awkward looking Americans standing in the back of the mosque to greet us and discuss their religious practices. Everyone in the mosque greeted us with kindness we did not deserve. They welcomed us into their personal house of prayer and then spend an hour with us discussing Islam and the roles that Mary, Jesus and Mohammed have in their religion along with how they pray every day. I could not believe how excited the men in the mosque were to host us three Americans. Soon after Dudley came and picked us up in the rental car and we were on our way back to our hostel to spend the night.

Sunday was a beautiful day as it was the first time we have seen a blue sky in over a week. In fact, that one blue sky was the only one we saw for the next week as well as the weather here has been extremely dreary, wet, cold, and miserable of late. We spent about 6-7 hours driving to Port St. Johns where we found a hip little hostel. I spent the night playing poker with a bunch of farmers from the area who all live together on a self-sustaining compound wherein their only need of outside assistance is in the form of petroleum. Though we played poker, it was not a typical poker game as the dealer always got to choose the game played. Even though I had never played about 7 of the 10 different games we played that night, I somehow ended up well off at the end of the night.

By Monday afternoon we had arrived back at Open Arms literally greeted by the open arms of the kids who wanted hugs after our journey. I spent the next few days finishing up the room I had been working on so diligently the past week by finishing tiling the bathtub and bathroom as well as caulking it and replacing windows. After that was all done I moved the kids back into the room and got to reclaim my “blue bachelor hut” rondavel as I like to joke. It was a great relief to move out of the tiny little apartment that Dudley and I had been sharing for the past month.

The only other fun thing that happened since my last blog occurred during my Friday night while I was in the Komga club socializing. I was wearing my gold IRISH pullover of which I often get many comments from locals who ask me if I am from Ireland. I always politely say no I am American and my school is known as the Fighting Irish. Nonetheless, my world was turned over on Friday night when a gentleman walked up to me and said wait Irish I know that…isn’t that from a movie called Rudy or something? I was ecstatic for this was the first time I had met anyone who knew about ND and of course it was from Rudy. We had a great discussion about Notre Dame, Rudy, and American Football.

I apologize to everyone for the length of my blogs lately and I hope they are not too tedious, repetitive or boring. I pray that everyone is doing well and feel free to drop me a note on what’s going on with you! I have been busy and unable to respond to many of your emails lately but I will try to get back to everyone this week.

Go Irish, Beat Sooners

P.S. I put updated my last blog with pictures so be sure to check it out so you can actually see what I am doing! Next time I get fast internet I will put up some from the game reserve.

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