Monday, 14 January 2013

Voluntourism at N/a’am ku sê

We spent the final week of our trip at the main N/a’am ku sê sanctuary. The N/a’am ku sê Foundation encompasses the Solitaire Cheetah release project, a hospital for the San Bushmen and a school for the Bushmen children, as well as the sanctuary and supported by no less than the Jolie - Pitt Foundation. The 3200 hectare sanctuary houses many animals which have been orphaned or kept as pets or need protecting for a variety of reasons. These range from battery hens to baboons, and big cats. Many other animals are destined to be released into the wild including cheetahs and African wild dogs.

Peggy-Sue: A whirlwind of warthog-powered demolition
A beautiful caracal
We were there with an ever-changing group of 20 or so other volunteers from all over the world, which made it very different from our cosy group of 4 for the week at Solitaire. Instead there always a big group of people around and some interesting group dynamics. Annoyingly we arrived on Saturday afternoon, so were too late to join in any of the activities scheduled for the rest day on Sunday. Instead we spent a very hot and frustrating day at the camp with nothing to do, and not able to spend any time with the animals as we wouldn’t get our induction until Monday. A rest day before starting work is no use to anyone!

Once Monday came, things improved and the hard work started. It was very different from Solitaire as there was loads more to do. We worked on lots of very practical things like food prep, painting a hyena enclosure, border fence repair and game counts. Many of these tasks were made more strenuous by the heat. Lots of the jobs were also great fun, however, especially feeding the animals (everything from lambs to lions), walking the junior baboons and caracals, and spending time with an ageing cheetah called Sameera and ‘Trailer Monkey’ (a newly-arrived Vervet monkey who has to live in a trailer until he learns to get on with the existing Vervets, and who has yet to be given a proper name).
Liz walking one of the caracals
Preparing food for the baboons
Lunch delivery for a cheetah
and a leopard tucks into his dinner 
Liz gets to know Sameera

Sameera pretending to be a wax-work


Tuesday night saw us on baby-sitting duty - for a 3 month old baboon called Sheila. She's the youngest of all the baboons, and despite being so hairy, she's too small to spend the night outdoors. She needs 3 bottles to keep her fed and wears a nappy to prevent 3 bottles worth of fluid ending up all over her baby-sitter's bed. We were shown how to bath her and put her nappy on. Despite all this effort though, she was still extremely smelly! She was actually pretty well behaved. We were advised to wear her out by letting her run around while we enjoyed a beer. We then had to get her back to the tent, feed her and change her nappy. Despite seeming to like me (Marc) previously, she started screaming and freaking out any time I came near the tent, so Liz had to look after her until she went to sleep. Apparently she's respects men BUT is generally scared of them too,  so not just me! Sheila slept pretty well that night, but we didn't, what with the smell and the basic fact that there was a baboon in our bed! It was a fabulous experience yet we were both quite relieved when she was returned to the  baboon enclosure next morning. 
Sheila shows off her nappy
Liz looking the worse for wear after a sleepless night baboon-sitting
At dinner-time on Wednesday night, the rainy season arrived at N/a’am ku sê. Liz went to our tent to get something. In the 2 minutes it took her to walk there a torrential storm started, trapping Liz in the tent. It was a good job she was there though, to close up all the ventilation flaps and to mop up the river of water that was already inside the tent by the time she’d closed everything up. Some of the other tent-dwellers were not so fortunate. The storm led to a bit of a party atmosphere, with everyone squeezed into the kitchen rather spread throughout the camp as usual. 37mm of rain fell in a couple of hours, creating rivers of water all over the farmyard. The baboons loved it, escaping from their enclosure and running amok until some of the staff braved the rain and the baboons’ teeth to round them all up again.

Apart from the rain and the animals housed at the sanctuary, we had a couple of other encounters with nature. A wild porcupine visited the kitchen on a three of the evenings. The first two occasions were both a few minutes after we’d gone to bed, but the third time we did see it, although we didn’t manage to get a photo. They’re such weird creatures, and much bigger than we expected. There were also a couple of highly venomous puff adders caught in the volunteer area during our week there. Luckily the resident snake lover (or lunatic, depending on your view of dangerous snakes) was on hand to capture them for later release out of harm’s way. I turned out the snakes were quite a problem, killing both a wild dog and a cheetah in the weeks just before our arrival.

Chilling out with the other volunteers after a hard days work
Puff adder - scary
After all the hard work at the lodge we decided to spend the last 24 hours of our holiday in the luxury of the N/a’am ku sê lodge. This was probably the most opulent place we stayed on the whole trip – luckily they offer a discounted rate for volunteers! We did very little at the lodge except eating our way through a mountain of delicious food, relax in the best swimming pool we’d used, enjoy the view across a small gorge and watch all the wildlife (kudu, hartebeest, oryx, warthog, ostrich, baboons, hyrax, a scorpion, enormous beetles, and loads of birds).

A bit of luxury to end the trip with
It was a great way to round off our trip, and to reflect back on the previous 4 weeks. Namibia is a fantastic country, which we’d thoroughly recommend. It’s very safe and easy to travel around, with a huge variety of landscapes, tons of wildlife and very friendly and interesting people. There’s loads more places we want to see, and we’ll certainly go back. Several people we met over the course of our trip told us Africa really gets under your skin. I think they may be right!

Goodbye from Namibia

Friday, 11 January 2013

Cheetah release

Our last 2 posts covered our trip around Namibia. Since then we’ve spent 2 weeks volunteering at two animal sanctuaries which are part of the N/a’am ku sê carnivore conservation programme.

The first week was at the Solitaire Cheetah release project. Solitaire is a tiny town in the Namib Desert, consisting of a couple of farms, a gas station, a restaurant, a small shop and a bakery which is famous for its apple pies. Apart from that there are no houses, and nothing else resembling civilization. But it’s a beautiful spot with mountains behind the desert savannah.

The middle of nowhere
There’s a problem with human-animal conflict, whereby farmers see cheetahs as pests, often shooting them on sight, in the belief that cheetahs will kill their livestock, which does sometimes happen. The cheetah release project aims to take problem cheetahs from other parts of the country and release them back into the wild in a location which is safer for the cheetahs. The project exists because cheetahs – unlike leopards or hyenas – are highly-strung animals. With a leopard, you can simply capture it, transport it elsewhere and release it. If you do this to a cheetah it will likely starve to death due to the stress of the journey. So instead they are fitted with a radio collar and released into the huge enclosure at Solitaire (it takes 3-4 hours to walk the perimeter fence), where they can be fed and monitored for 3 months or so, before they are released close by.

At the time we were there, there were 2 wild cheetahs due for release and 6 tamer cheetahs, which had been previously used as tourism cats or were hand-reared by previous owners, so were unfit for release. Once a cat learns that people and cars equals food, that behaviour can never be un-learned, and that cat cannot be released because it will very quickly end up getting shot.  

There were 2 other volunteers with us, Jean-Marc from France and Susanne from Germany. The programme was run by a biologist couple, Matt from UK and Kate from US. Luckily we all got on well!
Jean-Marc, Susanne, Kate, Matt, Marc & Liz

Our roles included monitoring camera traps and taking part in game drives to analyse what other animals were in the area. We also got to help prepare the food and feed the cheetahs (they only eat once a week to simulate the experience in the wild) and to accompany paying tourists on 1 or 2 hour trips to see the cheetahs. Once in their enclosures we had to use radio receivers to locate their collars in order to find them, but even then it sometimes proved impossible to locate them. It’s amazing how well a 40kg spotted cat can hide, so that you can’t see it even from just a few feet away! Getting out of the car close to the cats for the first time was an unnerving experience, but after a while we got to know cheetah behaviour. They are wary of humans and after stamping and hissing would back away from confrontation with people, unless meat is involved! But generally they were calm, and you could slowly walk up to 10ft away from them to take pictures without them being at all concerned. The most common thing they do is sleep!
I can do 70 mph. This is just a gentle jog

I still can't get Radio 1.

Looks scary, but it was just a yawn

They are beautiful animals, and we got to know the different individuals. The thing that amazed me most is how skinny they are when they are hungry, how they will then eat a quarter of their own body weight in meat in one go, and will then look like they’re pregnant. After eating they’re hardly able to move, which isn’t surprising as it’s the equivalent of us eating us eating 80 steaks in one sitting!
Rubbing vitamin powder into bits of dead donkey. And this is called a holiday!

I'm hungry!
We did some other fun things at the project, including making cardboard zebras containing meat for the cheetahs to tear apart (whether to enrich the cats’ lives, or to keep the volunteers amused, I’m not sure) and a beautiful walk into the hills to a natural spring full of frogs. There was also plenty of timing for chilling out by the pool and spending time with the menagerie of animals at the lodge. In fact, sometimes too much time, and we got frustrated for the lack of something to do. The heat didn’t help, as it was too hot to do anything in the middle of the day except swim.
A rare non-striped zebra

Zebra demolished and hidden meat eaten
The spring where the frogs live

The first rain in Solitaire for 9 months
Our tent - home for a week

A sundowner in the cheetah enclosure

New Years’ Eve came around while we were at Solitaire. Some other volunteers from another project joined us for a night of drinking round the fire, bananagrams, dancing (Liz) and jumping in the pool (both of us). Good fun, and very different to our usual New Year.  
We'll post about the final week of our trip very soon. Hope you enjoyed the pictures.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Around Namibia - part 2

Swakopmund was our next port of call. The drive was rather surreal as it was flat and moonscape like for several hundred kilometers, with the occasional ostrich to remind us we were still on earth! We stopped off at Walvis Bay Lagoon, as a reknowned wetland site. Here we saw plenty of flamingos and other wading and sea birds. This turned out to be quite a strange place due to a salt works being next door to it! Weird and artificial salt flat one side and lagoon the other.

Swakopmund is an old German colonial seaside town. German still appears to be the first language here. It’s a quite pretty town with lots of German architecture as you’d expect and more very helpful people. Our highlight here was the “living desert tour”. The guide was quite the character, passionate about the environment and very knowledgeable. He drove us into the dunes, which were stunning and brought the desert to life by showing us a number of reptiles and insects which you’d never see it exploring alone. These included skink (legless lizard), a sand adder, the white lady spider, a beautiful translucent gecko and a rather moody chameleon! It was a really cool experience to meet these desert dwellers up close.
Hey, what you looking at?

Put me down!

Another strange creature lurks in the dunes

After a lovely meal in a converted tugboat on the water’s edge, it was off to our next destination – Brandberg. We were only here for a night – it was a stopover than anything else. We didn’t see the elephants who occasionally frequent the campsite where our chalet was, and it was one of our least favourite places in terms of the accommodation and atmosphere. So it was off early the next day to Grootberg. This was more like it! Our lodge was in a conservancy run with the local people to give them career opportunities. The lodge was situated at the edge of a high plateau, overlooking a 300m deep valley. We would later discover what lives down there…

Our chalet was luxurious and the pool, lodge and staff were all great. We umm’d and ahh’d about going on the rhino tracking excursion due to the 5:30 start, the fact it could take hours of tracking them on foot in the heat and the low chances of successful sightings this time of year. But we put on our lucky pants and went for it – and boy, were we rewarded! Within 2 hrs of bouncing around on top of the Land Rover in the valley below the lodge, we chanced upon a pride of eight lions. This area is one of the few outside of Etosha that still has wild lions. As we watched and photographed, 2 black rhino walked past behind the lions, to the utter amazement of us and the guides & trackers. This gave us an unusual problem – how to track the rhinos on foot, because by now the lions were getting very curious about our car and started stalking us! We drove on for maybe 1km, in the direction the rhinos went. Then we all got out (despite still being able to hear the roars of the lions in the not very far distance) and tracked the rhinos on foot for a few minutes. They have poor eyesight, so we were able to get pretty close before they got spooked and took off. We were all relieved to find the Land Rover was still empty when we returned. What we would have done if the lions had been sitting in it, I have no idea!

Not a bad place to meditate

Family of lions

Endangered black rhino

Because we’d seen both lions and rhinos by 8:30am, we still had time to take a look for the desert elephants too. These live in the other direction, towards the farmland, so more riding on the bucking bronco Land Rover ensued. Again we were lucky, finding a herd of about 15 elephant after a tip-off from a local. Making sure we approached them from the downwind side, we got to about 80m away from them without disturbing these magnificent beasts.

We can't all get in the shade of that one tree

All in all it was an amazing day, and we would be sorry to leave Grootberg. Our last night there was Christmas Eve, and for the first time on the trip, we felt a bit Christmassy. It’s so strange being in a hot environment at this time of year, and without all the usual pre-Christmas preparations and traditions that it hadn’t felt like Christmas at all. But there was a Christmas spirit that night with the staff (and the German guests) signing Christmas carols, and everyone wishing each other a merry Christmas as they went to bed. Our final surprise of the day was finding a scorpion – luckily only a small one - on our bedroom wall. We plucked up the courage to put it outside before getting some well-earned sleep.

Next day (Christmas Day) we were off early to Etosha, one of southern Africa’s biggest national parks. This is rainy season (despite all the river beds being bone dry and us having seen no rain) which is the worst time of year for animal spotting, as they have plenty of water all around, they can avoid visiting the water holes where they congregate in winter. Despite this we were both excited at the prospect of more wildlife. We had to look hard for it and cover a lot of ground, but Etosha didn’t disappoint. We saw two different groups of Lions (one rather randy couple and one couple with a cub), two more elephants, a black rhino, a spotted hyena, tons of giraffe, oryx, kudu, springbok, impala, and even a tortoise! We also saw quite a few different birds, including a Marabou stork, various eagles and a vulture. It was great to see all these creatures in their natural environment, but also not scared of our car. We had a particularly lovely experience with the first elephant, watching it walking along beside our car, then taking a long mud-bath.
Sparring Impala

Showing off in the mud bath

"Now get back into position, and let's practice the dance again"

King & Queen of the jungle

Thirsty work being a rhino

The park itself was also beautiful, varying from a vast salt pan (probably 50 miles across) to forest and grassy plains. We even witnessed a huge thunderstorm first hand at the end of the day. Our Christmas dinner was an evening buffet of barbecued Kudu, Turkey and Beef, eaten outside, with a choir and a camel thorn tree decorated with Christmas lights. No Christmas pudding, no mince pies or chocolates, but a great, unusual Christmas day, rounded off by a beautiful sunset over the watering hole.

Merry Christmas from Etosha

Our final stop on the first part of our trip was at the Erongo mountains. Here we stayed at yet another beautiful lodge, with luxurious permanent tents nestling in the hillside amongst the giant granite boulders, with hundreds of Hyrax (the closest living relative of the elephant) and rock agama (brightly-coloured lizards) for company. We swam, trekked to the top of the tallest hill for a sundowner (sunset drink), enjoyed the view and had a relaxing time, before returning to Windhoek the next day to drop the car off and prepare for part 2 of our trip, volunteering at a cheetah release project and an animal sanctuary. That’s the subject of the next installment…

A little bit of luxury - it's actually a very grand tent

Rosy cheeked lovebird

Happy New Year everybody!

Friday, 28 December 2012

Tsaris Mountains & Sossusvlei

We left cold wet London for Jo’burg, and then on to Windhoek as there are no direct flights. We had no idea what to expect, as I (Marc) had only been to South Africa, and Liz had never set foot on the continent.  Two uneventful flights later, we passed through the tiny Windhoek International airport and made for our hotel.  Our first impressions were how hot it is, what a lovely garden full of birds the hotel had. After a powernap and a swim it was off into the centre of Windhoek, for dinner. Joe’s Bierhaus was recommended to us, and for good reason. It’s a really cool restaurant where the indoors and outdoors blend seamlessly. We had our first taste of Africa animal, both living and on a plate; We ate Oryx steak (a mountain antelope that tastes like Vension) and while we were enjoying the food, to our surprise, a mongoose wandered into the restaurant.

Next morning we met our travel agent and picked up our rental car - a 4x4 pick up – and hit the road. The 4x4 part would later come in rather handy.  After an hour with the luxury of tarmac, the roads turned to gravel. Most Namibian roads are gravel, but on the smoothest ones you can drive at about 60mph. The distances are also vast. It’s uncommon to come to a town less than an hour from the previous one. On that first drive we saw baboons, ostrich, and springbok.

Four hours later we arrived at Zebra River Lodge, set amongst the Tsaris mountains. As we were greeted with a complimentary drink, Liz cried out ‘Macie’. The owner had an 11 week old Pug puppy called Bella. (Liz’s niece has a very similar pug pup called Macie).

We were both amazed what a luxurious place it was. We knew there was a pool, but we didn’t know we’d have a lovely little stone built room set in a beautiful garden. 

We enjoyed a wonderful evening. Dinner was served on a veranda overlooking a watering hole. The food was great, and after dinner the staff sang some traditional songs for the guests (all 7 of us). Once the sun set, we were treated to the most amazing sky. The stars are so much brighter and so many more are visible than in Europe with all our light pollution. We could even see Jupiter’s moons through a normal pair of binoculars. Then some visitors came to the watering hole – some Kudu, a warthog, and finally two zebra which looked almost ghost-like under the lights by the watering hole. We also watched an eagle owl up close in the garden of the lodge, flying around looking for dinner.

Next day we joined the owner and his kids on an early morning walk. We bounced along some very rough roads in his truck, then walked along a dried-up river bed for an hour to a beautiful, lush canyon with several turquoise pools where we all had a well-deserved dip to cool off. By the time we got back to the lodge it was seriously hot, which is why siesta’ing is popular here. But there was siesta for us. We had to drive to our next accommodation, a desert camp.

‘Desert camp’ doesn’t really do it justice. We had a simple, part canvas chalet with a brai (BBQ) outside on the veranda, but the view was incredible, across the grass plains to the Tsaris mountains 10 miles or so in the distance. Whilst swimming in the pool we watched an Oryx make its stately way to the watering hole. That night we BBQ’d Kudu and Eland steaks which were delicious, and had an early night because next day we had to be up early. That night we needed to have an early night (which we did) and sleep really well (which we didn’t)

Next Day we 4 x4’ed off into the sun rise to visit Sossusvlei within the Namib-Nauklauf National Park!  I can’t remember last time I set the alarm for 4:45am. We were at the gate by 5.40 having collected our picnic hamper from a local hotel, this turned out to be enough food for a small army! At 6 they let us in and we drove the 64km to the first major, and accessible dune. The last 5km were in sand. Low and behold we got stuck, but after letting out some air from our tires we were on our merry way, with a bit of help from Liz pushing us! Why do I always get the good jobs ;) The views were increasingly stunning as we went along and we saw the odd Oryx and impala along the way. We arrived at the huge dune and started our assent, which took about 40 minutes. Quite hard going as we went higher and higher. The views were amazing and as far as the eyes can see. Oranges, apricots and golden sand dunes wow, what a place! The views over Dead Vlei were beautiful too. As you can see (from the pic) it is a white pan area made of dried out clay and salt with dead camel thorn trees protruding out from it. It’s a photographers dream with the dunes in the background. We admired the panoramic view at the top then ran, walked and jostled down the sand dune to investigate Dead Vlei.  By now it was around 9am and we began to notice the rise in temperature. But the place was too beautiful to miss exploration and photo opportunity! By the time we began to make our way back to the car the mercury had began to rise…we had ignored instruction to wear closed toed walking boots and this was when we began to regret it. The sand became hotter and hotter on our 30 mins return journey. By the time we arrived at the car Liz especially was incredibly hot and panicky. I think I said “I would have died if we’d had to carry on for 5 more minutes”. Never have I been happier for air conditioning and a bottle of frozen water…In my panic I dropped my sandal and we had to drive back through the 5km of sand to retrieve it. On the upside we had a stunning picnic hamper under the tree J all’s well that ends well! Seriously, we knew it got hot in the desert but by 10am, really?!!!

On the way back to the lodge we stopped off to see the Seisrem Gorge, which is impressive but by then it was too hot to hang around….and needless to say we spent the evening gazing into the horizon with a delicious salad, a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and listening to the calls of the wild. Bliss!

Namib Desert Resident

Sunset over the Tsaris mountains

Our home - but only for one night

Dead Vlei

Too hot, even for the trees

On top of the Dune, looking down on Dead Vlei

A kitchen with a view

All 360 degrees of our Desert Camp at Sunset