Thanks Mom and Dad

Glencairn, Robben Island, and Cape Town

Departing from Kruger National Park after two weeks of incredible animal sightings and fascinating fieldwork wasn’t too sad considering we will be returning for the last three weeks of the course. Our next destination was a three-hour drive and two-hour flight south, towards Cape Town. The town of Glencairn is positioned on the inside of the “hook” just outside of Cape Town. We arrived after the long day of travel, checked into a camp with three medium sized cabins, ate dinner, and fell asleep. The first morning, my running buddy Henry and I went out for a run on the coastal route, which contours the land as it meets the ocean. The air was crisp, salty, and it was windy, but the view, AH the view was spectacular! Tall hills with homes etched into the side of them on our right, and the Atlantic Ocean on our left, I’m surprised I didn’t trip while taking it all in. We ran for a few miles before reversing direction to return to camp. However, before heading back Henry and I decided to go for a swim in the ocean. Man was it cold! The waves broke hard which made swimming out a challenge, but the it was great fun. Just when I thought the morning couldn’t get any better, it did. Two puppies arrived on the beach and we chased them around for a good while. Finally and unfortunately, it was time to head back to camp for breakfast. Having no towel, we crossed the main road and ran up to our camp barefoot, as we didn’t want to get our sneakers wet. Returning at 7:30 AM, there was still a whole day ahead of us, yet it already felt like we had done so much. Classes resumed that day and a different set of academics had arrived to give instruction on a new subject, History and Culture of South Africa.

An important, and the most engaging component of our History and Culture course our visit to Robben Island. For those who may not know, Robben Island is where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for eighteen years. The day before our “field trip”, we were lectured on Mandela and his life history. The next morning, we departed the for the waterfront ferry terminal to Robben Island. Unfortunately, our ferry was delayed, however this just gave us an opportunity to enjoy a delicious lunch and walk around some of the shops. Once on the ferry, it was about a 40-minute, conversation laden, crossing to our destination. After arrival and disembarking, we boarded tour buses, and were greeted by our “singing” tour guide. She provided us with a background history of the Robben Island prison system and broke it up with ballades of African folk songs. She was very talented, but it wasn’t until our next tour guide greeted us, that I came to meet the real highlight of the day. The short, older gentlemen greeted us at the entrance to the prison where Nelson Mandela had spent almost two decades. We quickly learned that he, himself, had been interred on Robben Island as well. The tour began in empty cellblock, where our guide proceeded to tell us why he was imprisoned, for protesting the travesties of the government, and discussed his life on Robben Island. The lines on his face and scars on his hands gave evidence of a hard life, yet he spoke with a strong and commanding tone. Following his moving talk, words sticking to us like glue, we were brought to see Nelson Mandela’s cell. No different than any other holding cell, it was hard to think that such a giant of our time and a symbol hope for South Africans had spent so many years there.

Our ferry ride back was a little quieter. There wasn’t much conversation at all. I think many of us were processing what we had seen and heard. The struggles faced by those who had been unjustly prisoned for trying to make South Africa a country of less division and more equality were acts of bravery. Upon returning to the mainland, our group went out dinner on the pier. With a great view of the coast, many ordered seafood and I tried the fish that this part of the world is know for, Kingclip. It was delicious! Following the meal, we loaded into our vans for the return to camp. On the way back, as if our experience could not have encapsulated more of Cape Town culture, Table Mountain put on a beautiful display for us. To preface, Cape Town sits right at the based of Table Mountain which stands tall and proud above the city. As there is a significant difference in altitude, the weather at the top of the mountain can change rapidly. Called the “Blanket of Table Mountain” this weather phenomena consist of a large cloud sheath that forms as a result of rain showers at the summit. Like a sheet falling of a bed, this white, puffy “comforter” spilled of the top of the mountain and onto the city below as it has done for centuries. It is quite a site to see.

Life in Kruger National Park

Hello from Kruger National Park! At almost 8,000 square miles, it is one of the largest game reserves in the country. This swath of land in the northeastern region of South Africa is home to the big five, the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. In addition, there are a few hundred other species of animals residing in the park. Some, like the African wild dog and the Sable, are currently on the IUCN Red List threatened species spectrum, while others, like impala and warthog run amok through base camps. Our base camp, Skukuza, is research based and works in conjunction with the governing body of the park, SANParks, to prevent further loss of the biodiversity. During my stay, I’ve had the privilege of assisting in a great deal of fieldwork. The purpose of this fieldwork is to assess species population sizes and the impacts of threats like invasive species and disease. As researchers, we gained backstage passes to just about the entire park. Insanely cool.

Elephant, rhino, leopard, lion, sable, hyena, wild dog, buffalo, mongoose, springbuck, hippos, tortoises, zebra, giraffe, waterbuck, are among the many animals I’ve been able to see in natural habitats. The only way you are allowed out of your vehicle in KNP is with an armed game guard. Thankfully, as a researcher, and not a tourist, we have game guards traveling with us on almost every outing. This allows for us to do our work and some intense animal spotting. Upon arriving at a site, the procedure is as follows. The game guard, exits the GDV, loads his or her rifle, and takes a walk to determine if the area is safe. Only when we are given the “okay” are we allowed to hop out of our open-air truck. It is important to know that this quick scan dose not guarantee a predator free zone. Walking close together and “keeping your head on the swivel”, as they say here, are requirements when conducting fieldwork in the bush. Fieldwork required for one group I was part of called for sampling and collection at water sites. Our biggest threat were the hippos, which were never happy to have us as guests. Huffing and spraying water, our paths sometimes had to be redirected because the resident hippos were particularly agitated. On one occasion, after being redirected because of hippos closing in on us, we had to find an alternate route from our alternate route because a pack of pachyderms were approaching the waters edge for a drink and a swim. We waited, patiently, for the elephants to pass through, and then quickly walked by the annoyed hippos back to our GDV. It was exhilarating to say the least.

Equally exhilarating were the two evening game drives we took. The park closes to the public after sunset, however with a research permit, we were able to receive special privileges to take expeditions after dark. As many of the parks inhabitants are nocturnal and like to hunt in the evening this was a great way to see a side some additional animals. Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN endangered species list, the African leopard is a challenge to locate due to its low population. It’s unmistakable coat also helps it blend in to the brush to hunt and hide. However, on a very special evening game drive, against the odds, we spotted one about 50 feet from our GDV. Crouched down into the grass and hidden, this cat seemed to take no notice to us. On another evening game drive the following night, our expedition encountered two male lions asleep in the middle of the road! When I say I could have reached out and touched them, I’m not kidding. Also, undaunted by our GDV, we had to ride around the sleeping lions, onto the grass, and back onto the road in order to pass them. The lions like the way that the pavement reflects back heat after baking in the hot African sun all day. Although it is neat to see the ways that animals are adapting to the changes to their natural environment, it makes me wonder how much the world continues to change into a place less and less hospitable to these beautiful creatures. Conservation science is critical to continuing to mitigate relations between man and the rest of the creation and that is an understanding I am developing the more time I spend in KNP.

Sundowner February 10, 2017

I arrived in South Africa with a “to do list”. Go for morning runs in the savanna, hike Table Mountain, brush shoulders with wildlife, and absorb the culture, to name a few. My first lesson in culture came in an unexpected way and has left me yearning to experience more. If you’ve ever spent time with South Africans you’ve been introduced to the concept of a “Sundowner”. If not, now you’re curious.

Sundowners usually take place after a long day of work. Being tired, sweaty, and hungry are practically requirements. Over the past few weeks, my days have been comprised of fieldwork in one hundred degree heat, calculating statistics in an outdoor classroom, and spending quality time with a totally groovy group of people. Our current research is centered on an invasive snail species, called T. granifera, and its impact on various ecosystems. It isn’t the most riveting work, but my team made it enjoyable and I’ve learned a great deal. Entertaining each other with bad jokes and snail puns turned into great bonding experiences. After hours of collecting samples under the African sun and crunching math problems, while swatting away bugs the size of compact cars, the time would come for a change of pace. Coolers packed, our entire team, professors included, boarded the GDVs. Destination, sundowner. The top of an old fire tower with expansive views of the Savanna, a precipice that rises up above land inhabited by lions and elephants or the banks of an old dam. These locations all fit the bill. Requirements include just enough space to gather and a good view of the sky. Can you guess where this is going?

The whole point of a sundowner is to watch the sun disappear over the horizon with friends close by and a chilled beverage even closer. The drink of choice, not surprisingly, is called Savanna. It’s a light amber color and, at one point in the suns descent, that cider matches the pigments that radiate across the changing sky. Going to sundowners is an old tradition here. It’s an aspect of culture that highlights the importance of friends and nature, two of our greatest gifts. Unfortunately, they’re also two things that are often taken for granted. Think about that. When was the last time you stopped to appreciate the beauty of nature or called up an old friend just to catch up? I had hoped that experiencing culture would be enjoyable and maybe I’d learn about local customs or, dare I say it,  learn a native dance (correction: try to learn a native dance). Instead, this little bit of culture has helped me to realize the importance of putting a few minutes aside to take in your surroundings. Enjoy what is around you with the most important people in your life. Experiences, like the sundowners here in South Africa, make days longer, richer, and fuller.

 

From Johannesburg to Nylsvley (home) February 1, 2017

If you could not pronounce the second city in my blog title, have no fear. I’ve now resided here in Nylsvley for almost ten days and I’m still trying to figure it out. Each local who I have asked has offered me a different pronunciation. Not wanting to risk sounding like a foreigner, I’ve resorted to calling it home. So far, no one is suspicious.

After meeting our class of seventeen students, we began our journey out of Johannesburg. The travel route we took across South Africa consisted of mostly dirt roads. To those city dwellers that may be curious, the novelty of a dirt road disappears after about hour three hours. Finally arriving in Nylsvley after almost twelve hours on the (dirt) roads was a great feeling. I’ll be honest in saying that the view from our camp was not anything special, but the place just radiated a cozy feeling. Upon unloading my bags I moved into my new temporary bedroom and went off for dinner in the dining hall. Mary, our chef, had prepared a DELICIOUS meal including “pap” which is ground maize, spicy sautéed chicken, grilled corn, and a salad. We were encouraged to stuff ourselves, and I obliged. Following dinner, the entire group stayed up talking late into the night. Being off the grid is a good thing.

Rising at 6:30 AM, breakfast at 7, and then it was off to class. Our first class was an introduction to savanna ecology. Immediately following, we loaded into game drive vehicles (GDVs) and went out to the field for the first time. It turns out that our destination, the Nylsvley Nature Reserve, was only steps away from “home”. We entered the reserve and I was instantly reminded of why I had decided to travel to South Africa. Tall grasses and an abundance of Acacia Tortelis trees (identified thanks to my introduction lecture) greeted, and reassured me, of my arrival to the savanna. Wildebeest ran across the road in front of our GDV and within twenty minutes, we had our first giraffe spotting. The giraffe, who was much less excited to see us than we were to see him, continued eating his lunch as we snapped pictures. It was the highlight of my day, so I thought…

Following the game drive, we returned for lunch and an afternoon lecture. When class dismissed, I went out for a run on the reservation with one of my new friends. Caught up in the gorgeous trees and grassland I almost tripped over a midsized tortoise crossing the road (dirt, of course). #southafricaproblems Then, still thrilled to have seen the tortoise and partially out of breath, we made a right turn and there, less than twenty feet away, stood a full grown female giraffe. Taller than the one I’d seen earlier, this magnificent animal was RIGHT NEXT TO US! Not wanting to disturb our new friend, we passed by her without breaking stride. The giraffe turned, followed us with her head for a moment, and then resumed eating. THAT was the highlight of my day. I wonder what’s next.

For those reading this whose minds may be wandering, I am not moving to Nylsvley. T.S. Eliot once stated, “Home is where one starts from”. Nylsvley is where I was first introduced to the beautiful landscape of South Africa and it is from here that I officially begin my adventure.

Thanks Mom and Dad

Well, I’m officially in South Africa and ready begin my study abroad experience. Many who have been through this before describe their time abroad as “life changing”. I can attest to the fact that the first fifteen hours on my study abroad were not life changing. Hey, this is the longest time I’ve ever been on a plane, let alone just sitting in one place (if you know me, you probably just laughed). The time on the plane has only made me more eager for the next fifteen weeks. After an extended period of passing the time by with small talk, reading, and movies, we closed in on Johannesburg. Shoutout to the flight crew of South African Airways and my flight attendant for remembering how I take my coffee, black. This morning, after two cups of coffee, we began our descent.

That last 15 minutes between touchdown and debarking are the longest of the whole flight, aren’t they? After thanking the pilot, I was on South African soil, well really just the tunnel that leads to the gate, but same difference. Following that, I breezed through customs, said nobody, ever. I actually had to argue that my visa was legitimate. Let’s hope I can get back through in May. Anyway, I picked up my luggage and headed for the hotel which I’m spending my first night in. Immediately upon leaving the airport I was hit with a rush of new smells, some of them tropical, and others completely unrecognizable.

I checked into the hotel, dropped my bags in my room, and headed for the gym. Had to work off the last fifteen hours of inactivity. Then, lunch in the restaurant located just off the lobby. Everyone here is so friendly! Tomorrow, I will meet up with the group that I’ll spend the next three and a half months with. Monday, we head off the grid, literally. We will depart for Nylsvley which is a game reservation located ninety minutes North of Pretoria (in case you’re familiar with direction here in S. Africa). My syllabus says that there will not be internet until February 3rd. This is the part I’ve been waiting for (and my parents are dreading).

Speaking of my parents, I need to thank them for the love and support they’ve given me to make it to this moment. I wouldn’t be here without them, in fact, I wouldn’t be anywhere. I suppose being the favorite, I mean, first-born child has it’s perks. Mom, I’ll try to come back with all my limbs. Ciao for now.