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.