Lapalala Wilderness Reserve
After spending a night in Johannesburg, our class met back up at the airport with our professor and took a mini-bus to the Lapalala Wilderness Reserve. There were a number of road blocks, but it was a great chance to take in the scenery. I got to experience my first South African grocery store - not actually that different from those back home, but definitely a lot cheaper. At the reserve, we got to stay in these cool, rustic chalets with thatched roofs. We met our guides for the trip - Gerhardt and Eddie - both from South Africa. There were 2 trucks for us to ride in on safari, which came to be known as the "Bot-Mobile" and the "Cool-Mobile"....essentially, it didn't take long until we shoved all the botanists into one truck so they could look at the grasses and trees and plants for as long as they desired, while the zoologists and ecologists spent more time on the cooler stuff. As much as I appreciate plants, I was riding in the Cool-Mobile. We spent our first day out learning about the different habitats in the Bushveld, what plant and animal species are present in each, the geology of the habitats, and just being amazed. We would leave for safari at 6 o'clock in the morning, where it was a bit chilly in the back of the trucks, but by mid-morning it was scorching - 50+ sunblock all the way!
Wilderness School and Safari
We stopped by the reserve's Wilderness School to learn a bit about how the reserve is run, its history, community involvement and education, management challenges, and get some hands-on time with a few animals. We also spet a lot of time on animal identification on safari. Back at the reserve, we are responsible for the cooking and cleaning, so when we get back at the end of the days sometimes you have to head straight to the kitchen. The rest of us decided to put the pool to good use, and after dinner everyone sits around the fire and just relaxes. Talk about living the life. And the stars are amazing, seeing as there's no artificial light around for miles and miles, so that's become a nightly activity, too.
Hiking up the Mountain
This time we got out of the trucks and did a bit of hiking up one of the mountains to get a better view of the whole valley. Talk about perspective. We also spent a bit of time around camp working on tree identification. Turns out I’m pretty good with African trees, too. Since we were already at camp we decided to eat lunch there. Turns out they weren’t kidding when they said to beware of the monkeys. Several people lost their lunch and had to go make another sandwich. Monkeys also steal sandwiches from other monkeys, which was pretty fun to watch – they can really move through the trees. We also drove through a Golden Orb spider’s web…..and ended up with a spider in the truck. You all know how much I love spiders…..especially giant poisonous ones. But I held it anyway. Blech.
Cave Paintings and Leaving Lapalala
We spent our last morning in Lapalala working on our tracking skills – more so identification than following tracks, for safety purposes. For the afternoon we hiked down a narrow cliffway to old cave paintings. No one knows the exact date they were painted or exactly what they mean, but they are thousands of years old. We spent the next morning cleaning and packing up, getting ready to trade our chalets for proper tents. It was sad to leave the pool and fire pit (large enough for everyone to sit around) behind, but we made quite a last night of it.
Welcome to Welgevonden
Another interesting bus ride later, and a stop at the shop to restock on biltong (Afrikaans for jerky, made from all sorts of interesting game), we arrived at Welgevonden Private Game Reserve. One of the big differences between Welgevonden and Lapalala is that it boasts the “Big 5” – namely lions, elephants, leopards, buffalo, and rhinos. There were no elephants or lions at Lapalala, and did we ever luck out. We happened across 4 different elephant herds meeting up in a valley. Absolutely amazing. The sounds they make are incredible, and humans can’t even hear half of them. Elephant herd dynamics and socialization are very complex, and we managed to upset one of the bull elephants. He started flapping his ears at us, and then charged….bit of a worry, since the males could flip our truck, no problem. The Africans have a saying that translates along the lines of “the lion may be the king of the jungle, but the elephant is god.”
One of our data collection tasks while in Africa was to help with game transects. You get up very early in the morning for these (4:30 am!) and drive in the truck along specified routes. As you’re driving, every time you spot a mammal you stop and record GPS data for where it was spotted, its bearing, how far away from the truck, what type of habitat you’re in, how many of the species are present, and their gender and age (when determinable). That information can then be used to determine population dynamics and management plans for the reserve….part of one of our assignments when we got back. Only takes 10 or 12 hours. You may have noticed that the Cool-Mobile provides no shade for those riding in the back – somewhere around 2 in the afternoon, the occupants of our truck got a little goofy….strange singing and uncontrollable laughter. Also got caught using a bush for bladder relief by a zebra…..not sure who was more surprised.
Bugs, Bugs, Bugs.....AKA Entomology
One of our other tasks was to gather data about the bug life in Welgevonden, which there is surprisingly little information on to date. We set up a variety of traps in which to catch the insects, lots of them using animal scat and fruit rotted in beer and rum as bait. I got teamed up with one of my classmates to be in charge of a butterfly trap – no poo involved. We set them up at 2 different types of sites to test the efficacy of our trapping methods in different habitats, and ended up with a ton of bugs….which seemed really cool until we had to identify them all. Not so cool. We also got to experience African rain – it might have been where the saying “when it rains, it pours” actually originated. And naturally, we were in the trucks when the heavens decided to open up. A bit too cold to be pleasant, but nothing like it.
Lions and Saying Goodbye
The one thing we hadn’t managed to find yet – despite being aided by collars and radio telemetry – were lions. And on our last morning we lucked out – a pride of lions devouring a wildebeest! Hearing them roar is the best part – your whole self vibrates when they do. After all the rain, there were some pretty well imprinted tracks afoot. Got charged by an elephant one last time, too. We took the afternoon off and went swimming in a dam, complete with zipline, and went to the CEO’s house for a sundowner. He’s got bush babies living in his roof, and they come out every evening as night sets in. Then we returned to our own camp for a final braai (cookout), fire, and some stargazing. We said our painful goodbyes the next morning, and headed back to the Johannesburg airport. Half our class headed back to Dublin, but the rest of us snuck off to Capetown for an extra week.
It wasn’t exactly as planned, but Capetown was awesome. We hiked Table Mountain, one of the 7 new natural wonders of the world. We spent a lot of afternoons on the beach (though not in the water – WAY too cold), and just relaxing in restaurants with drinks, tapas, starters, and good company. We went to the aquarium and out on a boat tour. Our shark diving adventure got canceled due to weather, as well as kayaking. But still, a great holiday.