I can’t remember the last time Dave and I saw 6:00 am together on purpose, and it’s been a long time since we both worked 11 hours straight together, so Monday morning was quite daunting! Remarkably, we managed to do it, but when we got to the common area where we were supposed to meet Liezel or Hein, nobody was there. We’re pretty proud that we beat the manager of the entire reserve, for a few minutes anyway. Come 15 or so minutes later, we start to think we’re being hazed. Come to think of it, they did all wake up pretty late on the weekends, maybe they just thought it would be funny to make us get up at the crack of dawn. Check that, before the crack of dawn- it’s still pitch black outside. I decide to jump on the common computer and check my email while I have the opportunity, and shortly thereafter, the following conversation ensues:
“Kate, what time is it now??”
“6:22…Actually, this computer says 5:22…is it remotely possible that it’s actually 5:22?”
“I suppose it’s a remote possibility” Takes out our phone… “huh, 5:22”
The clock on our phone had been an hour slow for the first few weeks of our trip so we had been setting the alarm taking that into account, but that night it happened to connect to a wifi network and move to the correct time so our alarm clock went off an hour early, unbelievable. I was moments away from going back to bed fully dressed (don’t have to wake up until the REAL 5:59 that way!) when we realize the Oscars are actually playing Live in South Africa right now. So, we simultaneously watched the Oscars and the sun rise over South Africa to warm up for the long day ahead. The 6am start time was not a cruel joke after all! The real joke is that even in South Africa, we STILL didn’t make it to any of the good awards, though we had to have been almost there. But for a few brief shining moments of our lives we could have told you who won best animated short.
Time to get to work! We walk immediately to the elephant boma where Liezel has a quick conversation with another employee in Afrikaans. When she turns back to us with a sheepish expression she tells us we’re in for an experience…normally someone feeds the elephants a few treats in their boma to distract them while we take the pick-up with the real food and branches and haul ass out into their yard to drop it before they can get to us. Apparently, today, they’ve actually run out of said distraction, so we’re instructed to hop onto the back of the truck (which is already 100% packed with brush), make a place for ourselves to stand, watch closely, and hold on tight. Pretty exhilarating, but we “lucked out” and they actually weren’t chasing us that closely-we were able to drum up a few extra handfuls of feed to occupy them before we left and it worked. Apparently if they do catch up they like to pick you up with their trunks and play with you while your co-worker keeps asking them “Give, please Selati, give”, like you’re a hat or something, and not a full grown human! Sounds entertaining, but I think there are some less entertaining outcomes as well…
After that we learned our usual 6-9am routine-there is a small list of large animals that we need to find and log, including various factors of their atmosphere and behavior. Basically, we get to go on what is essentially a game drive every single morning for 3 hours, and we get out just a bit before the guest game drives so we get a nice edge. For the majority of animals on our morning list, we have to just drive until we find them, but for the cheetahs we use a tool called telemetry which tracks a signal given off by the cheetah’s collar. It’s not as easy as gps though, and it takes some time to narrow and cross-check the range, so it’s a pretty fun morning exercise. The male cheetah is extremely camera-shy and stand-offish, so with him it’s usually pinpointing the group of bushes he’s hiding in and moving on. The female though is awesome-her name is Inyanga and she is not shy at all. We saw her last weekend for the first time, once Monday morning on our drive, and then we got quite the special SURPRISE visit from her later in the afternoon!
I digress though—the schedule everyday is basically 6-9am, track and log the animals, 9-9:30am breakfast, 3 hours of various work, 1-2pm lunch, and then another 3 hours of whatever projects we have for the day. Day one we were cleaning the cheetah camps which are the five large enclosed areas where they keep and rehab cheetahs that are not wild on the reserve for one reason or another. As soon as we enter the grounds, two friendly fellows named Kevin and Caleb come out to greet us, hissing and charging at the fence. Liezel explains that they haven’t been fed yet so we’ll feed them before we clean their camps. So, the raw chicken meat comes out and Dave and I start throwing it over the fence for the cheetahs, trying not to hit them because they get upset. Fair enough, I get upset when I’m hit with raw meat as well, but their feeding space isn’t too large for the two of them together so I do miss (hit) a couple times. We’re told after they eat they’ll calm down and stop hating on us, so we move on to the other three cheetahs and feed them. One by one we then move them (via gates on a pulley system) into different sections of their homes so we can clean all of the various sections. This primarily consists of picking up dung, carcasses, bones, etc.
On our second or third camp, Liezel looks up and says, “Oh yeah, watch out for snakes guys.” She tells us the last cheetah was killed by a cape cobra while in this cage, and I start to remember multiple tales from the braai the other night…the one about the head of the reptile house being in a coma from a cottonmouth bite recently…the one about the other venomous snake that escaped the reptile house recently…the one about how they don’t use anti-venom in South Africa because allergic reactions are often worse than letting your body try to work it out itself…and so on. I have NEVER had much of a fear of snakes. Until Monday. Out of nowhere, years of no fear caught up with me and I started staring intently at the ground at all times. I’m nearly positive it was the anti-venom news. I always thought if you could get to a hospital in a reasonable amount of time, it would just end up being a character building experience, but maybe I was oversimplifying. Dave was making fun of me because he’s not even that scared, but do you know how many poisonous snakes South Africa has? Me neither, and I’m not going to look it up, but it’s a ton. And the grass we’re working on is not short. My work ethic regarding dung and bones definitely took a hit from that point forth.
We started this job around 10 and at some point, when Liezel suggests we go get lunch, we only have Kevin and Caleb still to go, and a couple of smaller jobs, so we ask if we can just stay and finish so we don’t have to come right back out after lunch-seems like it shouldn’t take too long. So, as we approach Kevin and Caleb’s cage, Liezel explains that one of their gates is broken, and so in order to get through to a certain section of their cage to clean it, you have to walk directly through it, with them in it. Dave pulls me aside and suggests that we refuse but Liezel seems confident there won’t be a problem and I don’t want to bow out of a task on the first day! I’m also a little bit excited for the adrenaline rush, as foolish as that may seem. Dave refuses to let me go in alone so it’s going to go on as planned, each with a stick or broom in our hand “just in case”. It’s very hot outside so they have calmed down a bit and are laying together under a tree probably 30 feet from where we’ll be walking (and our walk is probably about 40 feet until you get to a cage you have to crawl underneath, which is ironic since we were instructed never to turn our back to them). I kid you not though, my newfound fear of snakes is such that during this walk I was as intently focused on the ground for snakes as I was for the cheetahs who were trying to figure out what the hell we were doing in their cage. We made it into the other section without a problem though, they were interested and approached, but never got aggressive. It takes about 15 minutes to clean this part, and then we repeat the process to exit, and I’m extremely pleased to announce that it was a complete success!
So, now, we’re just about ready to go when Liezel goes to close up the last cheetah’s gate, and returns saying “Guys, we have a problem”. Now THIS gate rope has broken, and so, once again, someone has to go in with the cheetah to try to fix it. Thankfully, as even she seems pretty nervous about this one, she radios in for help. She’s never been in the cage with this fellow and so doesn’t know what to expect. While we’re waiting for help to arrive, Dave and I go clean another camp for a cheetah that will be coming, which happens to be right beside the action, so we’re set up nicely. When help arrives, they go in, and it doesn’t go quite as smoothly as ours (very different circumstances in a much smaller space) but everyone survives. Dave and I make a strong suggestion that they invest some capital into these cages!
After all that, we realize it’s actually 2:30 already. I would have thought it was around 1ish-time really flies when you’re working hard! We head home for lunch at that point, and since everything in Albertinia, the tiny town closest to the lodge, closes at 5, we head to town for a quick grocery trip. Hein and Kim have provided a great stash of basics but it’s always nice to get a few things you miss from home like Chips Ahoy, Special K (Dave) and Sugar free Red Bull (yes, they have it here!). On our way through the final gate, Liezel and I nearly jump out of the car when Inyanga, the female cheetah jumps out of the bushes at us. Dave was looking the other way so fortunately he missed the panic. That incident was right before the gate to the game lodge so it was good that she jumped out when she did instead of running through them behind us. We then drive a completely different way to get out of the park so she can’t escape, and that’s essentially the end of Day One on the Game Reserve. So far, so good!