Baviaanskloof Wildnerness

Ett has always gone on about this amazing place called the Baviaanskloof. Back in the day, when he was really fit, apparently he did a trip where they cycled like 1000 miles a day(!), sleeping in the bush and swimming in the clear water pools. So I was keen to see what all the fuss was about. But we only had a very short weekend, and being Winter, the weather was looking decidedly unpredictable, so we decided to stay in guest house type places along the way instead of camping…later we realized we had made a hugely regrettably decision, but oh well. It took us about 2 hours until we got to the entrance of the National Park and the start of the wilderness area. Within a short distance, the cliffs rose up on either side of us in a gorge that put Cheddar to shame. I actually had to mention that to Ett as he had visited me in England in January and I had taken him to Cheddar Gorge, keen to show him some of our beauty hot spots. At the time he had politely made all the right noises, but now I realise he must have been laughing on the inside, because Cheddar is just a tiny snippet of the stunning, rugged mountainous region that make up Baviaans.

It was already late afternoon by this time, so we spoke to the people we had booked with (proper Afrikaans, with dogs and children running wild about the place) and went on a little further, through huge crops of oranges to find our little chalet. Chalet is putting rather a positive spin on in…more like a chipboard hut and it was freezing in there…colder than outside, with no heater and the electric blankets weren’t working. In true English fashion however, tea was soon on the go and we opened up the oven to get some heat in. Then we went for a little explore. It was beautifully quiet except for the odd bark of a kudu or bushbuck and baboons calling. We walked up a small river with tropical trees hanging over it, making it feel in my mind like real Pocahontas terrain, and I had to indulge in an extravagant ‘Colours of the Wind’ performance using the rocks and bushes as my props. I wanted to go for a swim in the pools as well, but maybe it was a tiny bit too cold, and also it starts getting dark very quickly in South African winter so we stumbled back to the hut and Ett started preparing the fire for what was an awesome braai with campfire singing.

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We actually slept so soundly in our little hut and the next morning we were soon on our way continuing the drive through the mountains. You were only allowed in the park with a 4×4 and the drive that day really made that apparent. The single lane track had been bumpy and uneven up until now, but as we continued, huge stretches had been washed away and we were now a couple of hundred metres up on the edge of the mountains, and if the bakkie were to fail or Ett lose concentration, then we would be over the edge in a second. It would have been my Mum’s worst nightmare, and I did feel myself reacting as she would have i.e. diving down into the footwell at particularly precarious moments, screaming at Ett to keep his hands on the wheel and concentrate, and then sobbing when he laughed at me for panicking! But it was worth it for the incredible views.

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For lunch we stopped at one of the campsites near a beautiful large pool, which was so still that the intricate patterns and bright colours of the gorge cliff on one side were reflected back in its waters. We opened up the back of the bakkie and made one of our staple lunches…tuna avocado and mayo sandwich, and went down to the sandy pool edge about 20m away to eat. Ett went back to fetch something from the bakkie and I was awoken from my post lunch daze by his sudden eruption of shouts and curses which echoed across the water. I had an idea of what might have happened and Ett confirmed. Not unexpectedly baboons, who had probably clocked us from the moment we stopped the bakkie, had raided our supplies. One had run off with half a frozen chicken we had only bought this morning from a small store along the way. The bread had been destroyed; there were chunks out of the cheese and footprints in the butter…a full on raid! Ett was annoyed at himself as he knew what these baboons were like, but I actually found it pretty funny…hadn’t wanted chicken that evening anyway!

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That evening we had booked to stay in a lakeside chalet (another vastly overexaggerated accommodation description), but when we got there we immediately didn’t get the vibe. Hard to touch on why exactly, but it was all very Eurocamp with everyone with their little 10×10 space, and there was an English man in the chalet next door who didn’t seem to have much to do aside from watch what we were doing and so as we hadn’t yet paid, we decided to make a break for it. The guy struck up conversation with us as we were leaving and without wanting to say that the reason was because he looked creepy and we didn’t like the place, we said we were off to find a shop (already knowing that the tiny conveninence store down the road was not convenient on Sundays), and he asked if we could buy him some wine. As we never returned, the poor man never got his wine and I wondered if he worried what happened to us…the young couple in the mountains who said they would only be a minute, but who never returned, and were never seen again!

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We actually completely lucked out. We tried a guesthouse a few km down the road and pulled into a farmyard where we were immediately surrounded by sheep. I made friends we three tame ones while Ett ventured tentatively toward the house (he assumed a place like this would have a huge protective guard dog). When he returned with the owner, a lovely friendly Afrikaans woman, he was holding some lamb chops (cousins of the friends I had made no doubt!) and petting a teeny tiny dog (so much for the vicious hound!) The place also was utilizing a Anatolian dog to protect the sheep from leopards and jackals, but we didn’t dare try petting him. She took us a few km away to a perfect little stone cottage, which was to be our home for the night. It was just what we wanted…quiet and isolated, but with hot water (once Ett eventually found the geezer), pans (I had decided to cook pancakes to go with our meat, seeing as our bread had been chomped by baboons) and braai pit (no self-respecting African home is without). And so we spent a lovely evening chilling out there, with an unusual supper of pancakes, lamb chops and beer bread (Ett’s creation).

The next day we drove on, stopping for amazing rusti bread with cheese and apricot jam and were sad when we eventually left the park after a beautiful sighting of some Klipspringers. On the way home we stopped in a small town called Steitlerville for some tea and scones (my influence!). Ran by unusual, but lovely people, we were introduced to Katy, a rescued kudu calf, a rescued tame bat-eared fox, a Hadeda with a broken wing, and shown round the guy’s small vintage car museum.

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An incredible little trip. My only wish is that it was longer, warmer so we could have swum in the pools, and that we had camped. I will have to come again…

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Rhino Relocation

It’s amazing how it’s often who you know, rather than what you know, that gets you places. Unfortunately I rarely know anyone particularly useful (I still love y’all J), but a chance meeting with a lovely assistant vet called Danni from Amakhala reserve when she was on Hopewell treating the male buffalo, was enough to get an offer from super wildlife vet Dr William Fowlds, for me to join them on a rhino relocation. I had met William once before, when Ettienne had took him a dead impala for a post mortem…lovely thing to remind him about. He wanted me to film the event for his social media links, and of course I jumped at the chance…this was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I was so happy when he said Ett could come along too. Please view my film of the event, here: https://youtu.be/92egF0mjI0k

So on the day of the relocation, Ett and I woke up at 4.30am and drove to the reserve, arriving when it was still dark. As the sun started to rise, Will, Danni and assistants prepared all the necessary immobilisers (M99) and antidotes, before Will left in the chopper to seek out the female rhino and her 8 month old calf.

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In January Will had got a call from the reserve owner to come out as soon as possible. What he found was a sight that is shamefully now commonplace in Africa. A female rhino, hacked to death, her face badly mutilated. She was also pregnant, and had been weeks from giving birth. Will had to extract the fetus from her body. All just for her horn, which today is worth more than gold and platinum, sold in the East for its supposed medicinal qualities, but which is made from keratin – the same substance as our fingernails and hair. 13 rhino had previously lived on this reserve. But after this poaching incident the owner was fearful that now the poachers knew about this population and had an understanding of the set-up and terrain, it wouldn’t be long before they returned for the others. He made the difficult decision to sell all of the rhino, as he believed he could no longer give them the protection they required. This is one of the lesser known side effects of rhino poaching…the cost to protect them is so much that it is no longer an option for many reserve owners, who for both financial reasons and for concern over the welfare of their rhino, are having to get rid of them from areas in which they are thriving. These 13 rhino are being moved to a high security area up in the North of South Africa where they will be well protected, but will not experience the same quality of life as they did in their original home. And this reserve has lost an iconic species and a massive tourism draw.

So the mother and her calf were the last 2 to be moved. Will sped off in the chopper whilst I joined the ground team, ready to move in once the rhino had been sighted. It was a beautiful morning on a beautiful reserve. The mist had gathered in the valleys and the sun was casting a pale haze over the entire landscape. It took Will and the pilot a good 20 minutes to find the rhino. I had started to get worried because if they hadn’t found them, the whole event would have had to be rescheduled for another day, and so I might not have been able to join. But once we got the call it was a race against time. We bumbled through the reserve and out onto one of the big planes where we saw the chopper herding the 2 darted rhino – the little calf leading the way. Finally the drugs started taking effect and they slowed, staggered and finally felt to the ground.

What happened next is a total blur, especially as at that precise moment my camera mortifyingly said ‘Recording failure!’ It then had to restart and reformat and all that technical disaster stuff, whilst all the action was taking place around me. Finally it started working again…the mother and calf were both lying on their sides, 100metres from each other, morbidly twitching from the drugs and the breath from their nostrils coming out like steam in the cold of the early morning. When immobilised they make this horrifying squeaking type sound, which I hadn’t even realised had come from them until I was editing my footage. Teams covered their eyes with blindfolds and inserted ear plugs to lessen the stress, but I realised at the end of this experience just how extremely traumatic this procedure is for rhino, and not the ideal scenario by any means. The calf recovered well from the antidote and was guided sleepily into his carrying crate. The mother caused a bit more trouble. One of her legs wasn’t responding to the drugs, so no matter how much the team pushed and tugged on her like a rugby scrum, she just couldn’t stand up. It took half an hour of determination from the team, and Will using electric shock pokers on her, to finally bring the leg back to life so that she also could be guided stumbling into her crate. The crates were the craned onto the back of the lorry, which would be taking them 20 hours away, still partially drugged, to their new home.

It was all in a days work for Will and the team. He has done hundred of rhino darting events like this in his time. For me, it was truly a unique experience that I will never forget. But I just feel so heartbroken that it has to be done in the first place.

20 hours non stop with a cheetah in the back

I had literally just got off the plane from England, when I was whisked away by Vincent Van Der Merwe, in his rather old and slow Land Rover, for my next adventure.

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I was accompanying Vincent, who works for the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), on a cheetah relocation, in an attempt to film it for my masters. Due to the fragmented nature of National Parks and Private Game Reserves in South Africa, inbreeding between families in cheetahs is becoming a big problem. Vincent has developed a metapopulation management plan for cheetahs in South Africa, which helps prevent this by moving cheetahs between different reserves and therefore artificially managing the gene pool.

I had wanted to film the young male cheetah on Ettienne’s reserve being moved just half an hour down the road to Addo Elephant National Park, but he was proving just too skittish, and Ett had been unable to catch him. So instead, I joined Vincent as first he drove 4 hours from Cape Town to Sanbona Reserve in the Eastern Cape to collect a young female cheetah. She had been specifically selected to be moved to Madikwe Reserve, right up by the border of Botswana, a distance of over 900 miles! Choosing the right cheetah for relocation is important. Vincent has lost 1 in 7 of the cheetahs he has moved due to a whole range of issues, from the stress of the event to oversensitivity to drugs. And that’s just during the relocation itself. The cheetah being moved to Madikwe had to be predator savvy as the reserve is renowned for its high densities of lions, spotted hyenas and leopards. And this was the cat for the job…she was fully predator aware having seen her own mother killed by a lion and so Vincent had high hopes that she would do well.

Sanbona is a huge (54,000 hectares), stunning reserve. We arrived at the Boma early afternoon and were greeted by the team there. There were 3 cheetah siblings in the boma, 2 females and a male. Both females were being darted, one we were taking with us and the other one was having a collar put on for tracking and her DNA collected for Vincent’s database. The process all went smoothly. The vet (Juan XX) was very experienced and the cheetah was ready to be shipped off in under 2 hours (watch my film when it’s ready for the details).

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Vincent and I then set off on the long 20-hour journey to Madikwe. An hour later and we were still making our way off Sanbona reserve when I needed a wee. Not knowing Vincent that well at this point and being a female, I obviously had to look around for the most suitable bush for some privacy, and took a torch with me as by now it was pitch black. I was already a bit freaked out as we had driven past 2 puff adders on the track and so chose my spot carefully. But not as carefully as I had thought! Just after I had pulled down my shorts I heard a buzzing sound. Thinking it was the hiss of a snake I have never leapt up so fast in my life, shrieking at the same time. I managed to shine my torch down and get a glimpse before running and it was a huge swarm of bees settled down in a hole just inches from where my bum had been seconds before…. a lucky escape!

Only a few hours later, whilst driving through a mountain range, it started to rain and huge lightning flashes lit up the sky. Then from nowhere we were hit by the craziest hailstone storm I have ever experienced. Literally huge chunks of ice were coming out of the sky and we could barely see the road ahead. We were so worried about the cheetah at the back as there are grills on the top of her travelling crate and she wasn’t covered. So we stopped when we could so Vincent could check on her. But the hail was so painful he got one metre out of the landy before retreating to wait it out. I was so concerned about the wet cold cheetah in the back I completely forgot to film the experience…sign of an amateur! But when we finally did get to check on her she was still doing ok, hissing at Vincent when he peered in at her.

The rest of the trip passed like a blur. Vincent and I must have chatted about every topic under the sun, and went through waves of being hyper, listening to music and then feeling the droop of exhaustion in the early hours of the morning. It’s a lot more interesting driving in South Africa when it’s light and you can actually see things. We could never stop for long as we wanted to get the cheetah there as soon as possible, but there were coffee and petrol breaks and wherever we went we were always stopped by locals who wanted to see what was inside the crate. They always asked how much a cheetah is worth and Vincent would lie and say they had very little value…don’t want to encourage poaching.

Finally mid afternoon the next day we made it to Madikwe. The park itself is so big it took us another 45 minutes to get to the boma where the team was ready for us. I was so thankful that the cheetah had survived the trip, despite her bout of hail, that when the crate door was lifted and she calmly stepped out, looking around her, I felt a wave of relief rush over me. She was actually very calm for a cat in her situation and Vincent was sure that implied a positive future for her on the reserve when she finally is fully released. She has a lot of challenges to deal with…apparently one of the lions on Madikwe has taken to following the 2 brother cheetah coalition and watch them make a kill before stealing it for himself.

Koos Potgieter, one of the lodge owners on Madikwe very generously said Vincent and I could stay in some of the rooms at his lodge, whereas we had been expecting to stay in sleeping bags in the research centre. 5* luxury was just what we needed after that 20 hour trip and we were treated to a late lunch before going out on a game drive where we saw the male cheetah coalition and a spotted hyena. Then after an amazing hot shower and beautifully cooked steak, it was time for a well-earned sleep before the equally long journey back to the Eastern Cape in the morning.

A cheetah attack and all other things cheetah

thaboThabo is a tame cheetah that lives on Hopewell. His mother was killed when he was a cub and so humans brought him up. Although never domesticated, cheetahs have been tamed throughout the ages, and it is thought it was the Sumerians who were the first to keep them as pets. I don’t like the idea of cheetahs being tamed intentionally, they are a wild animal after all, but unlike lions, cheetah have never been known to turn on their ‘owners’ and unusually for a tame cheetah, Thabo still has the ability to hunt for himself, and does this to great effect, especially during lambing season.

DSC_0045But he is also a massive softy around humans, he loves licking (not me though, only Ettienne who clearly must be a lot sweatier) and being scratched. I was quite distraught though to find out he is absolutely covered in ticks – you can feel them as you’re stroking him and Ettienne picks off some of the big ones. One species – the Blue Tick – can swell up with blood to a diameter of a pound coin after feeding. We took great, distasteful pleasure in removing these from Thabo and placing them on a hard surface before squishing them underfoot. They pop, exploding blood, giving the same satisfaction as popping bubble wrap, but with a slightly gooier outcome!

When you get to know Thabo, you see that his often-docile mannerism can get him into trouble. One day we were in the bakkie watching a herd of elephants grazing around us when Thabo shows up. He heads straight for the bakkie, not taking heed of the elephants close-by, thinking that proximity to us would give him some protection. Cheetahs are not a threat to elephants, but elephants don’t like any predators around, especially when there are calves, so Thabo was being particularly dumb. But he learnt his lesson when one of the mother elephants suddenly let off a deafening trumpet and charged at him. Unfortunately that meant she was also charging directly at us! Luckily it was more of a mock charge meant only to intimidate Thabo, but she got pretty close it certainly gave me some (more) grey hairs.

Hopewell has 3 cheetahs – Thabo, an adult female (Bokeka) and a sub adult male, whom was fathered by Thabo and to avoid inbreeding, the owner is looking to move this youngster off the reserve. Easier said than done. He has not inherited a hint of the chilled and tame nature of his father and is incredibly skittish which is making the hunt to find and remove him, extremely challenging. Ettienne has put out 2 cages in one of the only areas where he has been seen on a reasonably regular basis, and went to a lot of effort to put in some lovely female urine and poo from a cheetah sanctuary to attract him in. Collecting those precious items was hilarious. Ettienne was on high alert watching the female, waiting for her to carry out any kind of bodily function and then would race in and retrieve it with his bare hands. One day we heard from one of the workers that they had seen a cat in the cage, but that they hadn’t got close enough to able to identify which one. Ett was super excited as catching this young male has been 7 months work in the making, but there was also doubt in his mind…could it actually be Thabo, fancying himself a go with this apparently new female on the reserve? As we were driving to the cage, we dreamt up all kinds of scenarios. If it were Thabo, maybe he would be stressed and wild from being trapped. Would we even be able to tell it was him and not the young male if his mannerism changed considerably. As we turned the corner toward the cage, we realised immediately we needn’t have worried. There was the cheetah in the cage, and beyond any doubt it was Thabo. Although relatively chilled, he was bleating like a forlorn, lost puppy whose owners had forgotten about him. It was actually pretty heartbreaking, so we left him out a juicy Kudu leg. Within seconds of being released he was demolishing it as though he hadn’t eaten for weeks, whereas in reality he was probably only in the cage for a few hours. The hunt for the young male continues…

We had learnt a few days before that Bokeka, the female cheetah, had had cubs. The workers had seen her across a valley, thinking initially she was the collared leopard that has been lurking around (I have my fingers crossed as I want to see a leopard so badly!), but then saw that she was accompanied by at least 2 young cubs. We weren’t specifically looking for her when I caught a glimpse of a cheetah walking across a clearing one late afternoon, and with it being out in the open I just assumed it was Thabo. But as we got closer, we could tell immediately it wasn’t him. Being a female, Bokeka is visibly smaller, and she is also younger and sleeker. But the biggest difference I see between them is her eyes. Although slightly habituated to vehicles, she is a truly wild cat and that shows in her wild and focused stare, which is seriously intimidating. We had a small bit of meat in the back of the bakkie and wanted to give it to her, as with at least 2 mouths to feed now, life was harder for her and her hunt that day have clearly not been successful so far. She also had a big sore gash in her mouth, which we believe was probably caused by her being kicked in the face by an antelope during a chase, which is common danger for any predator species. Ett placed the meat down and retreated. Within seconds she had approached and taken it off to a shaded area where she ate at speed, keeping an anxious look out for dangers or anything that might steal her find. Ett has got very close to her before on foot, and so we got my camera and tripod and slowly got closer to her before starting to set up about 10 metres away. That was when we got chased by a cheetah! With no warning at all, and with the speed for which cheetahs are reknown, Bokeka was up from the meat and in full aggressive stance mode, now less than a metre from Ettienne, who had been stood slightly ahead of me. Ett has experienced this before and knew that the best thing to do in this situation is to stand your ground, so he shouted at her and made gestures. In the meantime, I was in full flight mode, inching my way away slowly behind him. Bokeka must be able to smell fear and vulnerability as she was making pouncing movements to get past Ettienne to me. It was probably only seconds, but it felt like forever, and I have a clear picture of the scene engraved now in my mind. Ett said eventually there was a stale mate, and he was able to back away slowly while Bokeka returned to her meal. During my escape I had managed to jump directly into a thorn bush and realized that my legs were completely cut up and bleeding. But it was worth it, for the most incredible and terrifying experience of my life. I learnt my lesson that wild animals never react predictably, and I have even more respect for the species on which predators prey. Even a tiny Duiker is faster and could put up more of a fight than an unarmed human, and still they get chomped. Thankfully we have our intelligence to save us from becoming permanent prey ourselves, although clearly some i.e. Ettienne had this more than others i.e. me, in this scenario!

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Lions in the mist

Yesterday weather-wise we seemed to have all 4 seasons in one day. Started like a nice spring day, cool but sunny. By about 3pm the temperature was soaring and horribly humid and then 2 hours later, whilst on the game drive, a cold mist rolled in, which later changed to rain.

You wouldn’t think it is the best conditions for viewing, but actually it is perfect for the lions as they can use the cover to their advantage. We watched through the mist as they stalked red hartebeest but on this occasion they were unsuccessful.

The guests who were in the tented camps told Ettienne in the morning that they wanted to move! They said it was like a horror film, they couldn’t sleep all night because it sounded like the lions were stalking around the camp continuously roaring, the effect which was probably heightened by the eerie mist and drizzle. But I personally think she is a total drama queen…the lion’s roar is incredible, it has such power and carries so well that we can hear the lions roaring from Addo national park, which is many miles away.

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The hippos revealed

A note on the hippos…there are 2 on Schotia, both females. They tend to stay in the water (at the Lapa dam) all throughout the day to keep cool. They don’t really swim, but rather float whilst walking along the bottom. and can hold their breath for about 6 minutes. They actually sleep underwater, bobbing up to the surface unconsciously to take in air through the raised nostrils..

Hippos kill around 2500 people a year in South Africa, so although they look cute in the water, they are incredibly dangerous. They’re omnivores mainly eating grass. They don’t hunt for food, but will feed on a carcass if they come across it.

At night time the couple come out of the water to feed. And it’s the funniest thing, pretty much as soon as the dinner gong is sounded at the Lapa, is when they make a run for it so that they’ve always disappeared by the time we are on the way home. We always have a search for them using spotlights as they’re incredible to see out of the water and if we do find them they always have a resigned look on their face which says ‘oh great, here they are, they found us’.

Warthogs…they taste better than they look

Although I will not be allowed to guide on my own as I don’t yet have the proper qualifications, I have been doing some joint game drives with Ettienne, and we are becoming quite the dream team. He drives (I haven’t quite been let loose on my own with the vehicles, Mr Bean has a particular way of driving which I’ve still to be taught) and I talk to the guests and if there is anything I don’t know I hand back to Ettienne. I’ve driven with a number of the rangers on the drives now and each is a totally different experience. I’m trying to combine what I think are the best attributes of all of them which is often telling stories about the animal’s behaviour instead of just spealing off facts and trying to keep it a bit numerous. Ettienne has a few cheesy little jokes which he will kill me for mentioning, but the guests LOVE them and I’ve even ‘borrowed’ a few when I do the talking.

Talking about the warthogs…’we often have warthog goulash for dinner…’they taste better than they look’

When the male elephants have their ‘special organ’ on display…’have you ever seen an elephant with 5 legs?…calm down ladies!’

Talking about the male impala and his harem of females…’he’s either very lucky or very unlucky! and how he keeps up with them all I don’t know.’

Talking about the lions preference for zebra meat: ‘If you put a menu in front of a lion…impala, warthog, German, British, Dutch!…the lions will always go for the zebra.’

Talking about staying on the vehicle when the lions are walking close: ‘sometimes the lions will walk right past the vehicle and give you a little look there (cue a suspicious, hungry expression). Keep calm, he’s only reading the menu as he walks past!’

‘You all look a little bit nervous now…don’t worry it’s only my second drive and I haven’t lost anyone yet!’

‘How do porcupines mate? Very carefully!’

Talking about the lions killing a warthog….’just a little snacky’

Upon entering through the entrance gate often reserve: ‘ok guys, welcome to Jurassic park!’

and one extra from Kurt…

With regard to the impala and his harem of females: ‘Us men struggle to please one woman, but the impala males manage to please 30!’