Our third week at Askari started quite chilled. Little did we know then that it was to become a real firework of sightings amd events. On Monday we went to Hoedspruid, bought food for the week, said goodbye to one volunteer who left and picked up two new ones. Further I got a new hair cut along with our comrades Paul and Nuno. For lunch we treated ourselves to Indian cuisine at the best place in town. After this relaxed day were excited to work again and luckily during the day a few great thigs were revealed that would make up our schedule for the week.
For Tuesday morning we were scheduled to burn at one of the camps with the whole reserve team. Fire plays an important role for the vegetation in South Africa. It clears out dead vegetation, enriches the soil with important minerals and makes room for the new generation of plants. Furthermore it prevents uncontrolled big bush fires. Unfortunately the weather was too cold that morning and the burning first was postponed and then cancelled for the week. Natalie and I were a bit sad, as we were really looking forward to it and now would miss this part as we were leaving beginning of next week. But the day should not end without a first surprise. After some unspectacular replacement work, we went out for a research drive late afternoon.
On our way back home, we could hear two lions roaring close to our camp. We stopped our vehicle every time the lions started roaring to hear which one was closer and where we had to go. A sound which makes your neck hair stands up. Then suddenly Natalie spotted the male lion as he was walking through the bush. Katie raced the game drive vehicle around the corners and finally he was there, directly in front of us. And he let us be and watch and follow him for quite some time, while he kept roaring and communicating with his brother, trying to meet up with him. It was truly impressive to see him walk and hear him roar just a few meters away from us. I have to agree with Natalie, it is one of the most impressive sounds in the animal kingdom and a unique experience to hear it live so close. I am so glad, we still got to experience it here. So we went to bed extremely happy and excited for the next day.
Wednesday had another highlight in store for us. We have several breeding camps here for the endangered sable and nyala antelopes. We had to move some of the male sable and nyala antelopes from one camp to another in order to keep genetic diversity of the breeding program. Two vets came to dart the animals and put them to sleep for the transfer. Everything was needed to be done as quickly as possible to reduce stress for the animals, as sometimes they can even die from it if it becomes too stressful and their heart stopps. Therefore we had a big team consisting of us, the vet team and the reserve working crew.
Once the animal was darted and dropped to the ground, it was first examined by the vet while we kept holding its head up on the horns. This is very important, as their horns are so heavy that the animal could seriously be injured or die if the blood does not flow to the brain anymore. Then we pulled it on a carriage and lifted it up on the pick-up truck. Brought to its new camp, we had to unload it before the vet could give the anti narcotic to wake it up. It was my first time to come so close to them. They are such beautiful and strong creatures, which deserve to keep their place in the South African wilderness.
But the day was not over yet and we went out for another try on a sleep out in the hope we will make it this time through the night without a thunderstorm. As we got to our place for the night again, we could suddenly hear trees breaking and falling to the ground. There were elephants around!! We waited a few minutes to see if they would walk into our camp. The sound was moving in a different direction though, so we immediately jumped into the car and tried to find them. After a couple of meters I could see something huge moving behind some trees. ELEPHANTS!!!
We stopped on the road and suddenly there were 21 elephants crossing the road. It was a big herd from cute little baby elephants up to fully grown adults. They were on their way to somewhere, unbelievably quiet for their size, yet fast and somehow very majestic. It was a truly impressive experience to see them in the wild. Back to our sleep out spot, we had a great time around the fire. And this time our sleep out was a great success. When we went to sleep at around 10 p.m., we could hear the elephants again. This time they trumpeted very loudly. Even though it was far from our place, it felt like they were right next to us. Furthermore we also heard some hyaenas and jackels calling around us. When the bush finally went quiet, everyone went to sleep except for the person on night watch.
There always needs to be one person keeping watch and making sure the fire keeps burning. We were taking turns every hour and Natalie and I luckily had two shifts one after the other this time. My shift started at 3:30 and it should yet again be a nice suprise for us. Two lions started roaring in the darkness. While one seemed quite far away, the other was closer and seemed to be on our side of the river. I could see Natalie waking up and listening to the roaring. They roared about every 10 minutes or so and when suddenly the roar felt really close, I saw Natalie and James both sitting up straight in an instance both saying at the same time: „Now this is defenitely getting close!“ From that moment on she got up and joined me. We both were sitting around the campfire in the dark with our torches on, searching the premises and waiting for the lion to walk into our camp any minute. The roaring still got closer, so close that our comrades James sat up and said it feels like the lion is lying next to him in the sleeping bag. While we were discussing, when would be the right point to wake up one of our Rangers for safety reason, Natalie saw that Ed was already awake and got up as well to have a stroll around. He told us there was nothing to worry about, the lion was still about 150 m away from us. What?! Nothing to worry about?! The next roar was a bit further away again though and we could hear that the lion had walked into the riverbed from the echo the sound had produced. So even though we did not spot him, it was still a great experience for us to share the night with a lion around our camp.
While some of us did not sleep too well that night (because of lions, hyaenas, jackals and elephants around us) all of us nevertheless enjoyed the sleep out. It was amazing to see the sunrise in the morning with a cup of hot coffee. South Africa is so beautiful in the morning! And we had survived! Compared to our sleep outs in Australia, there is a lot more going on around your sleeping bag in South Africa :).
When we got home we were surprised with the news that burning was planned for that morning again. Yeah, Natalie and I had not counted on that anymore. We left 1,5 hours later. Our job had two parts. We had to lay fire with burning fuel along the road of the selected area. The second part was to prevent the fire from jumping over to the other side of the road.
Well both jobs were a lot of fun. It was incredibly hot even though we burned on a cold day. The wind changed constantly and the smoke was sometimes all over the place. Birds of prey took advantage of the fire and filled up the sky watching out for small animals which tried to escape the fire. Unfortunately after 1 1/2 hours the burning was called off again. The fire did not burn and spread as quickly as we needed it due to the changing wind and cold temperature. We were hoping it would get warmer, but it did not. Natalie and I were still very happy we had the chance to experience a prescribed burn.
In the afternoon we had a lesson in rifle shooting. Each of us had five shots with the small calibre and two with the big calibre. The big rifle was difficult to handle and incredibly loud. Not surprisingly maybe, Natalie had the better shooting results since it was her second try. Friday started with a 4×4 driving lesson through the dry river bed. That was a lot of fun as well. After that we went out for some more fence painting. On our way we spotted a black Mamba crossing the road in front of us. I have never seen a snake go as fast as this. I was in heaven as it was one of my wishes for Africa to encounter a snake in the wild.
And the great animal sightings should not stop there. Until the end of the week we had more exciting animal spottings during our drive outs. We saw a rock monitor (large dragon like reptile), honey batchers, an only two weeks old giraffe baby, a clan of spotted hyaenas with 3 little cubs and many many birds. The only big things we had not seen yet were a leopard (which is incredibly rare to spot however) and cheetahs. Especially Natalie was keen to see the cheetahs again, as she had worked with them when she had been here before 3 1/2 years ago. Sunday came to an end and they had not shown themselves however.
I had another unexpected event waiting for me though. I had forgotten about the bees which recently had moved into our compost bin. While I was empting the bio bin, a swarm of bees came out. They stung me twice in my right hand and several times in my jumper, which luckily kept me safe. As usual Natalie took care of me. She took out the bee stings in my hand with love and after 2 hours I was fine again. Oh, and did I mention that of course I managed to hurt myself during the week again?! I got shocked when I accidently stepped into one of the electric fences, while I was closing the gate. Ed measured how strong it was. I had treated myself to a lovely 5000 Volt shock :). Luckily nothing bad came of it.
And then Monday came, our last day, here before we are to leave on our road trip down to Cape Town. We started this morning with another drive down to the honey batcher den we had discovered on our last tour. We wanted to set up a camera trap to start researching them. On our way there, Natalie started talking about how badly she wanted to see the cheetahs before we leave. Just in that moment, another reserve ranger messaged through the radio that she had just seen two cheetahs walking down the road. Ed turned the car immediately and raced down the roads to the place they were seen. And we were lucky!
When we arrived he cheetahs we sitting down on the ground yawning and grooming themselves. They are such strong animals and yet they behave so much like a cat. Now Natalie was in heaven. Especially because these two cheetahs were the same she had darted and transported 3 1/2 years ago. It was as if they were coming out on our last day to say „we are still here“. It was an amazing sighting as they got up after a while and walked around, marking their area and allowing us to follow them for 30 minutes. After that they disappeared into the bush. It is incredible how well they blend in with their colour.
The second part of the morning we set up amphibian traps that will mainly trap frogs. They do this every year to count population and species and any chances in the frogs that are an early indication for any potential change in the environment. Tomorrow morning we will go back for the first time to see if we caught something. In the afternoon we went onto another research drive to count animal population and sexes. As we get to our route start, Natalie almost gave everyone a heart attack when she suddenly breathed in so loudly by surprise, as she was the first to see the cheetahs again! This time they crossed the road just in front of us and then disappeared into the bush. What a great leaving gift!
And so it ends. Our time here was just amazing. Everyday was exciting, full of surprises with overwhelming nature and great people here to share it with.
I love South Africa!!!!