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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Hungry, Hungry Hippo!

Hippopotamuses kill more humans in Africa each year than any other animal.  They are fearless, aggressive beasts weighing over 2 tons (4,000 pounds!) as an adult.  With these facts before me, WHY on EARTH would I ever want to kiss a hippo?  For the answer, watch the first few minutes of this:

Yep, I kissed Jessica, this precious girl of 12 years old, and I loved it.  She comes up to the dock on her own free will each day; she has no water gates or dam that keep her tightened within the Joubert property.  Each day visitors rub her back with their feet and toes, feed her diluted sweet tea and vegetable chunks, and kiss her sweet, bristly nose.  I had the pleasure of doing all of this with some of my best CARE friends:  Brittany, Melissa, Alex, and Brittany’s mom. 

Kissing Jessica

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Cape Town or Bust!

Two days of drizzling farm work completed my 2 weeks of self-sustainable farm living in KwaZulu-Natal, and only 10 days remained in my 3.5 month South African journey.  The past 11.5 weeks, excepting a short trip to Joburg, have been filled with lots of work, sweat, and dirt, and I am relishing my next stop of pure-tourist vacation.  Cape Town or bust, baby!

With yawns plaguing my flight, I flew in to Cape Town well after 9:00 pm and only saw the city’s abundant lights casting the sky big and bright.  As I rode into the city in the comfort of a bus provided by my backpacker’s hostel, I looked around but saw very little.  New destinations always initially tire me with a certain level of concerned anxiety, regardless of my excitement at planning the trip.  Cape Town was no different, and watching my normal bedtime hour run by didn’t help.  Making small talk, the bus driver, a native Capetonian, told me, “Welcome!  If you’ve come looking for Africa, Africa is not here.  This is Cape Town; this is not Africa.”  I did not really know what he meant, but it didn’t too take long to figure it out.
The next morning I awoke early, well before the other 7 people in my 8-person dormitory room.  The sun was just starting to lift above the horizon as I stole a peak out of the window.  The next thing I saw was startling, the most majestic up-close vision seemingly within feet of my view.  This was what I saw:

View of Table Mountain from my room

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Cow's Life

Each day, 6 days per week, my work morning begins leisurely at 8:00 am by bringing in each of the milking cows to feed and manually de-tick them.  Yes you read correctly, de-tick the cows.  At first the thought of removing ticks from each cow with my bare hands was slightly revolting; every morning each cow has acquired about 10-25 ticks since the previous day.  The revulsion continued when a tick accidentally squishes between one’s fingers.  BLEH!  The manual de-ticking occurs because the family farm ethos excludes any pesticides, herbicides, or other chemicals on the animals or the land.  After two weeks? I got used to it, squish and all.
The family farm in the Byrne Valley
The family aims for a (mostly) self-sustainable lifestyle.  If they don’t grow It, harvest it, or raise it, they don’t eat it.  If it is not in season, then they’ll have to wait until next season to re-indulge.  Exceptions are made for personal hygiene items, flour, potatoes, peanut butter, and oatmeal, but not much else.

A few examples:

Monday, October 15, 2012

Farm Kid Strong!

In my quaint studio cottage, I have a small propane tank with an attached burner on top and an electric water kettle.  For the past year, I have been in love with having oatmeal for breakfast (NOT instant!), and was happy to find that this family had a similar routine.  Each morning for breakfast I cook a bowl of oatmeal on the gas and make a laid-yesterday hard-boiled egg in the kettle.

The farm family of 4 and Great Danes of 3
On my first Saturday morning here, 8-year-old daughter Femke asked me if I had breakfasted on oats.  “Yes (that is the only thing I have to prepare)…  Did you, too?”  “No!  I had corn flakes!”  She shared this with me half braggingly, half proud.  As a weekend treat, the kids are permitted an oatmeal deviation on Saturday and Sunday mornings only, and have a big bowl of plain corn flakes.  No added sugar, fruit, or jam, just corn flakes and fresh cow’s milk.  It is a total indulgence for them.  Oh man, I don’t envy being a farm kid.
Working on this farm with kids, I am beginning to understand the farm kid reputation for being strong as oxen and tossing cows single-handedly!  Last night Femke, the 8-year old girl, picked up a 40-pound sloshing bucket of milk and set it on the counter, nearly higher than her head.  A few drops dribbled down her front, but overall she was entirely successful.  She’s only 8!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Terrible Arsonist

I have moved on from the ill lack of security and trust of Johannesburg and have bussed it 6 hours to the tiny little town of Byrne in the Kwazulu-Natal region.  I am revisiting my New Zealand wwoofing adventures to learn more about South African culture.  Wwoofing (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) is essentially work in exchange for room and board with an added desire of cultural exchange.  The traveler/person doing the work is the “wwoofer,” with an expected work contribution of 4-6 hours per day, on average.  No money is exchanged, only work, room, board, and conversation.  As a wwoofer, I’ve restored native vegetation, sold fruit and veg on the side of the road, general house and yardwork, weeded yards, milked cows, dug potatoes, prepared and planted gardens, and now, worked on a small (mostly) self-sustainable family farm.

Almost exclusively, wwoofing hosts, which may be families or large- or small-scale farms, are located far from modern day conveniences of civilization, and this family of four is no exception.  Mom, Dad, and two girls live on a farm as self-sustainably as possible which includes milking goats and cows, chickens (for eggs and broilers), growing dinner piglets, a small citrus orchard and other fruit trees, and a healthy-size vegetable garden.  For income, milk, yogurt and cheese is made/sold, as well as breeding rights/puppies from 3 Great Danes of whom are generously doted.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Soweto: South West Township

The clean, bright, sanity of a large house-converted-backpacker’s-hostel in the suburbs of Johannesburg seemed a welcome change after months living on a Big 5 game reserve.  I lusted the plentiful hot water, spaciousness, ability to walk to a store, and quiet night’s sleep.  As it turned out, many other features accompanied these bounties, mostly less desirable traits such as extremely high crime and lack of personal safety.
"Welcome to Soweto"
Rebecca & I with our tour guide's 2 cousins
The majority of houses in South Africa have nearly insurmountable large concrete fences around the property and bars on all windows.  In my backpacker’s hostel I was installed in an empty 5-bed room in one corner of the house; on my last night I was the only person in the entire backpacker’s.  With lots of time during the day, as well as some much-needed downtime, I discovered all of the (public) nooks and crannies of the house and the large backyard complete with sprawling bar.  As I fell asleep each night, I replayed the house’s layout in my mind.  Virtually, I walked through the corridors and surveyed each window and door. If there was a fire in the kitchen, where would I run?  What if a fire was blazing the corridor to my room?  This was the first location I had laid my head down after leaving C.A.R.E., and I hadn't realized all of the pain that followed me.  My haunting thoughts took in the bars on all of the windows, I could not escape through them unless my body shrank to the size of a toy doll.  How would I get to the front or back doors?  Nightly I terrorized myself with burning house potentials as C.A.R.E. experiences continued to follow me.  Finally by my last night in Joburg my mind reached a suitable, peaceful option of running through a potential inferno with all of the blankets on top of me for protection.  My mind finally quieted for sleep.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

On "Leaving C.A.R.E."

Rebecca & I on our last night
After taking in the babies to their indoor sleeping enclosure just before sunset each night, we normally rush back to the Mountain Lodge for showers, dinner, and relaxing.  Instead, for my last night, as well another volunteer’s, Rebecca aka The Vet, we all walked down to the Olifants River beach with wine and snacks to wind down in peaceful nature.  After 10 minutes or so of happy sipping and chatting, we realized we were not alone.  Just down the beach and in some bushes, we were also joined by 2 male elephants.  Our excitement grew as we judged the distance between us.  Even remote close proximity to elephants is not safe, but thankfully we were a safe distance if we remained quiet (and the wind direction did not change).  We peered into the eyes of other creatures that call this area home, admitting the subtle wonder in which we are all connected.

It is customary that a volunteer is not on the schedule their last full day at C.A.R.E.  The day flew by as I ticked off small projects, took pictures, visited baboons I wanted to talk to, and areas I wanted to sit at and reflect.  I felt weird leaving C.A.R.E., mostly overwhelming and confusing.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Life as a C.A.R.E. Volunteer

Not everyone wants to do volunteer work, and volunteering to work with animals (and paying to do so!) is a special class of its own.  While it may seem alluring at first glance, the reality is long days, lots of cleaning, food preparation, and more cleaning.  The animals do not know weekends, nor does your work schedule; work persists 7 days per week.  The very rewarding job is spending time with the animals, being embraced by one of them, and realizing how one can make a difference.  At C.A.R.E. all volunteers are part of a daily schedule of 1-hour shifts; the workday begins at 6:50 and ends around 6:00 pm.

Sitting in my bed with Adam as he woke up/recovered from surgery

6:25 am Wake up!  If you are (un)lucky enough to have an upstairs room, then an earlier wake-up call is courtesy of the wild troop that uses the roof as a playground.  From my quieter downstairs room, I watched dawn from my room every morning in awe.  The sun breaking the horizon is the same miracle that repeats itself day after day, every day the same yet different.  Prepare and feed the dogs, bundle in warm clothes (it is winter here), and quickly head out the door for a brisk commute down the hill.

Walking with arms full of baby baboons
6:50 am The daily volunteer schedule commences at 7:00 am, but everyone must first gather to carry out the two youngest troops of baboons (35 baboons total, all under the age of 1.5 years) to their outdoor enclosures.  Babies, like human children, preferentially choose to whom they gravitate and wish to be embraced.  The first few days or weeks, no babies may jump into your arms, but as they know you (and like you) better, your arms may be replete with 2, 3, or 4 baby baboons!  Safely, volunteers attempt to carry no more than 2 babies at a time, each one riding side-saddle.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Wanted: Intrepid Dog Walker

Need four times daily dog walks for Molly & Moya.  Dogs must be walked independently otherwise, they fight with each other.  Walks occur in wild game reserve.  Dog walker must be fearless and prepared.  Regularly sightings include elephants, buffalo, giraffes, lions, and leopards.  Must not let dogs be attacked or eaten by any predators.

Sign me up?

At C.A.R.E. we have 2 dogs, Moya and Molly.  Moya lives in the Mountain Lodge with the volunteers, regularly snuggling up with someone each night, while Molly lives with Rita down in the Milk Kitchen.  In the days following Piet’s attack, I had A LOT of dog-walking shifts and consequently got to know Moya & Molly very well.  My arm hurt too much to be down at my side for long though, and especially hurt to swing so this translated to holding the dog lead in my left hand while my right either rested on top of my head or grasped my shirt collar, both positions uncomfortable and/or annoying. 
Moya with the 5.5 week old orphaned "Tank"

I had been scorned one time during these walks for wandering too far out of the C.A.R.E. gates (i.e. the end of the long driveway and down the road).  In fact, the day I had been “caught” I was at a much shorter distance than I had frequently traversed…  My motivation had been body movement and exercise to replace some of my injury-induced sedentary behavior.  I was getting really restless and yearned for long mind-clearing walks.  About 1 week after my many long dog walks, I was rewarded with quite a frightening, yet extraordinary, sight: 3 male elephants foraging about 600 ft from me.  Amazing!  

Friday, August 17, 2012

The night the sky turned orange

On Friday night, July 27, 2012, C.A.R.E. sustained a horrible fire that destroyed 1 of our 2 main buildings.  There were 15 volunteers and staff members here that night.  We ran into the burning building full of fear and trepidation to save 35 baby baboons in sleeping cages, 5 clinic patients, and in the upstairs small apartment the founder, 81-year old Rita Miljo and 3 baboons in cages in her indoor/outdoor living quarters.  Tragically Rita, and her 3 baboons, Bobby, Foot, and Sexy, perished in the blaze.  It has been nearly 3 weeks since the fire occurred, and I am just now putting it all into words.  I do wish I would have written down my thoughts prior to this, but the raw emotion was difficult to touch.  The “FULL LENGTH” version complete with a lot of emotion is below, if you are inclined to read it.

The story was all over the world.
Here’s one sample from the New York Times: Rita Miljo, ‘the Mother Teresa of Baboons,’ Dies at 81

Late in the fire
At C.A.R.E. we cook dinners communally each night, while breakfast and lunch are on-your-own.  Once the “Dinner!” call is shouted by the chef du nuit, we all trickle into the kitchen to serve ourselves buffet-style.  Melissa, a friend and fellow volunteer from Buffalo, NY, embarked upon the attempt to cook everyone a sit-down meal one Friday night: appetizers, salad, pasta with homemade spaghetti sauce simmered all afternoon, garlic bread, wine, and tiramisu for dessert.  We pushed our 3 big tables together for one grand family table for all 15 of us.  Everyone was in good spirits.  Some of us even put on nicer clothes in lieu of the standard ripped t-shirts and dirt-stained pants.  Dinner tasted great, but all of us together sharing, laughing and breaking bread was even better.  After dessert no one rushed off to bed, for smokes outside, or solitary to their room.  Melissa’s idea was a warm overwhelming success.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Piet, but no Repeat

Continuation from Enter. Do not Enter.
After a swift yet blurry walk down the hill to the Clinic on-site, my bloody arm was carefully cleaned and wrapped by the Vet Tech on staff.  It was noted that the bite had torn through the epidermal fat layer and just grazed the muscle tissue.  OWW!  Of course, Murphy’s Law would apply next… The truck to town would not start.  It was over 45 minute drive to town to the doctor… walking was not an option.  The battery, the water pump, who knows what was broken…

My arm and knee continued to pulse.  Badly.  I sat in a state of bewilderment for what seemed like hours and what seemed like only fleeting moments.

Finally an hour later, the truck powered up the hill and we were off 15 miles to town (45 minutes!) to a doctor whose name we didn’t know how to spell, a number that we didn’t know, and an office location that was partially known.  After a brief moment of bad news that the doctor’s schedule was too full to see me, 15 minutes later he had me on the surgery table injecting local anesthesia, cleaning the wound (moving around so much flesh that I tried not to look due to nausea, but couldn’t resist!), and eventually suturing me together again.  I walked out stitched, bandaged, and calm.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Enter. Do not enter.

Only 2 times in my life have I freely let out blood-curdling screams representative of horrific fear for life and limb.  Screams that action and horror movies are made of, extreme scenes like Psycho and the opening of Spiderman II to engage the audience.  The first time I screamed like this was in middle school.  I was walking home from school, only 3 houses away from my own, when a big dog jumped the fence and lunged after me.  The dog did not attack me, by some wonder, but the barks and teeth exposure had me fooled.  I was sure he wanted to tear me into shreds, and my scream mimicked my fear of impending attack.  It was spontaneous, uncontrollable, and emphatic.  Shaking and scared, I ran home as soon as the dog retreated.  I was unscathed physically, but mentally quite shaken.  We had dogs at home, and I never translated this near attack to any other canine.

The second time I screamed this same blood-curdling scream and genuinely feared for my life occurred a few weeks ago.  For less than 10 seconds I was trapped in a cage with an adult male baboon, Piet ( pronounced “Pete”).  

I entered his cage under the auspices of scrubbing the water dam, but apparently he did his own housekeeping. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

You are entering Big 5 territory

The alarm sounded at 3:30am, was it time to wake up already?  I found my headlamp, my small overnight bag, and day clothes.  With little more to do than dress and brush my teeth, I was out into the pitch black within minutes to find 3 others to embark on a 2-day safari adventure.


Yes, I was headed to the emblem of South African tourism, where scores of visitors from around the world come to see thousands of enigmatic wildlife roaming the savanna.
Dead Leadwood tree on the savanna plains
This is Big 5 Territory: Elephants, Lions, Rhinos, Buffalo, Leopards

Kruger is where big things happen, big animals roam, and big vacations are taken.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Name Game

 My time in Olivia hok (hok = enclosure/cage in Afrikaans) is getting better and better.  Every day I have been scheduled with the babies for 2 1-hour shifts per day.  Each of the babies looks remarkably similar to each other, most coated in seemingly the same color hair and fur, the same color eyes, the same exact nose, brow, and mouth.  Some are slightly older or younger, ranging from 4 months to 11 months old, yielding shorter or taller baby baboons, and some are rounder or thinner.   At first glance, and at  second, third, and fifteenth glance, they ALL look nearly identical.  Telling them apart seriously seems impossible.  Other more seasoned volunteers simply spout off their name as if each is a childhood friend.  I just look at each one as carbon copies of the same mold.

11 of 16 babies in Olivia hok

After several days of daily babysitting, I continued to mix up one baboon with another.  I started to get a decent grasp on several of them, such as Dot always clung to me around 4pm as I started the hok cleaning.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Life is not luxurious

My body: I have been bitten, peed on, pooed on, scratched, vomited on, gotten a fat lip, my hair pulled…  Sounds like I’ve been in a battleground fight!  Lest I not forget an outie mole on my neck nearly removed, too.  And it's only been a week since I arrived!

Daily shifts: The day starts at 6:50am by bringing the babies into their outdoor hok (hok = afrikaans word for enclosure/cage), and ends just before 6:00pm.  Every volunteer is scheduled in 1-hour work shifts ranging from making/cleaning bottles (for 60 or so young baboons under  3 years old) to cleaning out cages, sitting in the baby enclosure, cleaning the communal kitchen, sweeping the house, etc…  There are breaks in between, including 1-hour for lunch and any time that shifts are finished early. 

Me getting groomed
Olivia hok: The youngest baboon troupe at C.A.R.E., the babies, get brought out of their overnight indoor cages (sleeping 3-4 together) at 6:50am every day.  Until 5:00pm, all 15 play together in their outdoor hok under supervision by 1-3 volunteers also in the hok.  Supervising entails breaking up fights between older kids picking on younger babies, and generally acting as an "Aunt (or Uncle)" in the hok, ensuring order and overall peace, while also being a friend and playmate.  Playing with the kids can be very amusing watching their cheeky monkey behavior.  The mood can range from fun and exciting to relaxing or stressful.  I don a pair of waterproof pants before entering the hok during a 1-hour baby shift, as pee and poo are released bountifully.  Grooming is an essential aspect of baboon behavior, and as an "Aunt," you must be subjected to ample grooming: see picture of my hair being groomed by Jayne, while others climb/rest on me.

Volunteer Charlie

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Welcome to C.A.R.E.

In the spirit of saving $600, I took a zigzag airplane ride half around the world, quite literally, and slept in every airport in which I landed.  Picture this on a map:  Fly from Orlando to Chicago, layover for 2.5 hours.  Then to London (7 hours of single-seated madness Gumby-like sleeping), hang out in Heathrow airport for 8 hours (and sleep).  Then 11-hours to Johannesburg, South Africa, hang out in Joburg airport for another 8 hours, then on to my final tiny-airport destination of Phalaborwa.  WOW!  Most (all?) of South Africa is 6 hours ahead of East coast time.

I was collected at the Phalaborwa airport by C.A.R.E.; the airport was undeniably the most unique, quaint, intimate and warm airport that I’ve ever seen.  The baggage claim involved a staff member wheeling a buggy in from the tarmac and handing your baggage to you.  This airport is also the departure point for Kruger National Park, the most touristed national park in the country where one can see all of the “Big Five”, thus catering to many high-rolling tourists and sightseers.

The road to C.A.R.E. was full of 25 miles of bumpy, jagged potholed, jet-lagged confusion.  After we entered the guarded gates of Grietjie Nature Reserve, I noticed the sides of the road were heavily laden with great big piles of dung.  An animal must pass through or live in the area to drop dung…  this was ELEPHANT DUNG!  FRESH!  Wow! (Sadly (and safely), no elephants were spotted during the drive in.)  As we approached the volunteer house, “Mountain Lodge”, I was informed to prepare for (wild) baboon mobbing, as we were driving the open-back big truck that normally hauls daily food runs.  Immediately, fear entered my body.   I was well aware of a large wild troop that has also made C.A.R.E. home, amongst the enclosed baboons, but I had compartmentalized their activity to daylight (working) hours.  This scene was the beginning of a very interesting new chapter in my life…
Candelabra tree at the C.A.R.E. entrance in Grietjie Nature Reserve
Coming in after nightfall and 48 sleepless hours, I saw or comprehended very little.  Upon morning waking, I came to realize that THERE ARE BABOONS EVERYWHERE!  Holy shit, hundreds more than I imagined.  Approximately 650 baboons are living at C.A.R.E. (in enclosures), and there are another 300 or so wild baboons (the “Longtits”) that also call C.A.R.E. home.  In addition to baboons, there are human companions totaling about 10 staff members (7 from SA), 13 volunteers from around the world, the founder Rita Miljo, 2 dogs, 1 meerkat, 1 bushbaby, and all of the wildlife that exists in the South African bush.  It is a dynamic, exciting, and visually and auditory stimulating and colorful place.  Amazement.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Why South Africa? Because I C.A.R.E.!

For the month between booking my ticket and departure to South Africa, I quickly realized that this country did not hold the same public allure of my previous destinations. In the past, mentioning New Zealand, Australia, or France as past/future homes has frequently garnered ooohs and ahhs from the masses.  Undoubtedly, I have felt the same during these moves and travels. (New Zealand had been idolized in my mind for as long as I can recall… and still is!).

         South Africa?  You’re going to South Africa?  Hmm…ok.  Why?  (Emphasis on the Why?)

I concede that South Africa does not hold the same romantic and idyllic characteristics as many other destinations, but those weren’t my motives.  In fact, my motives were launched nearly 7 years ago while at home, sitting in front of the television.  Animal Planet, producer of many animal shows, including a series entitled, “Growing up… (insert animal species)” hooked me with one episode in particular.  In 2005 I saw “Growing up…Baboon.”  Yes, baboons.  Somehow, someway, this show stuck with me, I don’t know how to describe it, and 7 years later I continued to think about it.  (Excerpts of Growing up Baboon by Animal Planet)

Thursday, May 17, 2012


Sadly, this blog has not seen a lot of action in the past two years... Alas, it is time for a change!

With much trepidation, two days ago I purchased a ticket to.....................................

Departure date: June 18th, and return not until THREE AND A HALF months later!

What in the world will I do for 3 months?  The semi-plan: 6 weeks volunteering at a wildlife rescue center in/near Kruger National Park (more on that later), and 7 weeks traveling from Johannesburg to Durban, then along the eastern and western cape of Africa from Durban to Cape Town.  With the exception of being accepted as a volunteer with the wildlife rescue center, the remaining 7 weeks are relatively unplanned.

Right now I am full of fear, excitement, anxiety, nervousness, energy, intrigue, and utter bewilderment.  In essence, exactly the same as always.  I have big adventures ahead of me!