It turns out there was a lot more excitement ahead on Thursday night than expected. We knew we had an after hours shooting lesson with Hein, which was informative and fun. We both tore up our paper plates with the shotgun, and, using a rifle, Dave’s shots were clustered slightly better than mine but we were both pretty decent. This is very likely due to the fact that we were probably shooting at about 12 meters but, despite this short distance, the two pet springbok kept trying to get in the way of our paper plates but somehow, luckily, they both survived the evening. And as an added bonus, the rifle had a silencer and the shotgun had very little recoil at all which were both welcome surprises for me!
Around 7 we settle in for the evening with a fantastic traditional South African dinner of potjie, in this case a lamb and vegetable stew that’s been brewing all day. And as if that weren’t enough, we find Along Came Polly coming on at 7:30! It’s a perfect evening to recover from the last night’s late braai, or so we thought…at around 8 Liezel informed us that we were going on night poaching patrol duty tonight at 9. This was both thrilling and terrifying as it had been mentioned before but had been determined to be too dangerous for us to do unarmed so the topic had disappeared until that very moment!
Poachers have once again become an ENORMOUS problem for game reserves in South Africa (and surely all over, but I’m only familiar with the issue here). An average of over one rhino is killed per day in South Africa, in order to cut off and sell their horns. The biggest market for these horns is China, where they believe the horns (which are made of the same thing as our nails and hair) improve sexual performance and cure cancer. Ridiculous of course, but that matters very little. And the poachers in this part of the country are extremely sophisticated, usually ex-military, and often flying in with automatic weapons on helicopters in the dead of night. In addition, it’s become evident that even veterinarians can be bought, as the M99 tranquilizers that can only be procured by vets is starting to pop up in various poachings. Basically you can’t trust anyone, so I’ve avoided talking much about the rhinos in my blog (not that I can’t trust you guys, but I don’t want someone to google this game reserve and learn ANYTHING from me!). But, just so you understand the issue, it’s become extremely serious, and it’s happening every day here, and taken very seriously. Our reserve has three rhinos that everyone works extraordinarily hard to protect.
So, we obtain a spotlight and set out at 9 in trusty old Inyathi (this week’s beat up old game drive truck). We’re going to drive the entire reserve, scanning the spotlight in a half-arc as we go. There is a bonus prize hidden in this duty though because there’s a whole different world out there at night. We find bat-eared foxes, hundreds of hares, and a whole slew of other animals in the process. And…wait for it…we actually found BOTH cheetahs for the first time in our “careers” here! And we did it the old school way, using a flashlight, finding eyes, and then analyzing the rest of the body. Of course, without Liezel’s positive confirmation that these were in fact cheetahs, we’d probably not have been so confident to publish our findings! Luckily the one animal we did not find were the human poachers, and at 11pm our second to last working day is actually over. I’d like to emphasize again though that we really enjoyed this drive, and fear of the danger involved quickly became secondary to fascination with the newly discovered animal night shift.
When we got in from poaching patrol we entered our tent for the night and that very minute, it started raining, and then pouring. Not being close enough to any of the nearby “cities”, we’ve been living in a land of no weather reports and so hadn’t even known it might rain. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before but it has ONLY rained at night the entire time we’ve been here, except for a brief rain on our bus from Cape Town to Knysna. Knock on wood, Dave and I have always had INCREDIBLE luck with weather on all of our travels, Africa absolutely included. Not yet have we had to work in the rain, so we were relieved to hear another night rain starting so quickly after we finished our jobs for the day, and hoped it would finish by morning. We started again at 7 on our final morning since we had been out late on poaching patrol the night before, and, indeed it had finished! We were off to find Inyanga to say goodbye to her. She was in the same area she had been in the night before, just lazing in the sun by the exterior fences. We spent longer than usual with her since it was going to be the last time we’d see her (although we did run into her napping under a tree again later!). The urge to climb out of the truck and pet her, rub her adorably cheetah belly, is truly almost overwhelming. She’s seems entirely unlike the cheetahs in the cage, just the sweetest, chillest cat, and I’m honestly not convinced she would hurt me if I did that but, of course, we resist the urge, say goodbye and drive on. Oh, and the rain did start again-not too hard, and not for too long, but our streak was officially broken!
Today’s big excitement is that we’re FINALLY going in the lion’s den. The lions are kept separately here as 4,500 acres is relatively small in the world of game reserves, and with lion’s being opportunistic killers (they kill just to kill, not necessarily to eat), you need a lot of antelope to support that business. And our male lion, in particular, is extremely aggressive. That, in fact, is the reason we’d not been in there yet-it seems that Liezel is terrified of taking us in here which, again, is saying a lot. We’ve heard the other guides tell tales of him charging at their cars and guests, but so far there have been no actual injuries. And, being the only part of the reserve we’ve not seen regularly, we’ve been dying to go in there. Thus, we are beyond excited when we get the surprise news that Hein’s second hand man is going to take us in there with him to feed them! Talk about up close and personal.
We meet Patrick at the gate and realize there’s only one passenger seat in his pickup so I quickly jump in anyway and arrange myself on top of the middle storage compartment, around the stick shift, before anyone can suggest something crazy like only one of us going in. It’s a tight fit, if you could even call it a fit at all, but it adds to the thrill when he takes off at full speed into the enclosure. They’ve switched the feeding truck today from the usual white truck to a green one so for once he doesn’t come charging at the truck immediately, much to my disappointment. But that just means Patrick drives EVERYWHERE at full speed to find him-through ditches and gullies, over huge shrubs and small trees, straight into thicket patches where you can’t see anything, and so on. Dave and I kept looking at each other in complete shock, but luckily we did not run over either of the lions. The female finally saw us and came running so Patrick threw a huge piece of meat for her, and she came right up to the truck, within a few feet to grab it and haul it off. That was really cool, but unfortunately Patrick finally gave up on the male and just left his meat behind and took off out of the enclosure. We saw him come down for it just as we were leaving, but the thrill of being chased by the regal male never became reality. Still, the adrenaline rush was a great one. I’ve never been with such a reckless driver, much less in a lion’s den!
With every person we’ve spent any amount of time with in South Africa, Dave and I pick out a favorite phrase they say. With Liezel, it’s when she calls the buffalo. It’s the most adorable call ever, and so we tell her that we’d like to feed the buffalo one last time, without explaining exactly why. So despite the fact that they both appear to be, and actually are, vicious animals, she goes for it, and we pick up the food and set out to find them. After about an hour of looking everywhere for them, we break for lunch. After lunch, the hunt is on again, and this time it’s hourS of searching, to no avail. We log a few other animals in the process, but our entire afternoon has been spent searching for these 7 massive black beasts, all so we can hear Liezel say a few words in Afrikaans for our camera, and we cannot find them anywhere. We know we still need to feed the cheetahs in the facility again before we wrap up our day and soon realize it’s already 4:30. So, as Liezel turns the truck towards home, I’m standing for one final scan of the surrounding brush when what do my wondering eyes should appear but seven huge buffalo that we’ve all come to fear! They waited until the absolute last second and then chose to grace us with their presence, after half a day of searching for them. And we’d been within feet of where they were laying down in the brush, but still had not seen them. So, for the last time, Liezel called them while Dave poured out their food, and, once again, lingered a little too long outside of the truck to qualify as safe. We drove off a ways and then stopped so Dave could get back in what we like to call the “Offering Seat”, a seat attached to the very front of the truck, in front of the hood. It’s SO fun to ride in, and we had only discovered it the day before so we took turns all day Friday riding out there. We fed the cheetahs one last time, and headed home to pack.
Appropriately, our final day of volunteering came to a sad close with a final braai. This time there was no special game meat on the menu, just delicious beef steak, potatoes, sausage and bread, but it was a great ending, and I can’t lie-I was very very sad Friday night to be leaving the reserve. I thought I’d be relieved that all the work was done, but that would come later-we really enjoyed the experience, the animals, and the people so it was tough to say goodbye. Especially tough because the following day was going to be Hein’s son, Malan’s second birthday party-an all day fiesta featuring a roasting lamb (picture our roasted pigs) and the usual excess of food and drink they’re known for-it would have been a blast. Alas, it’s time to move on and Liezel was taking us to the airport to rent a car at 7am the next morning…