I am well aware that this blog has been completely neglected ever since, well …. ever since I started it in fact. I could explain why – by saying things like: I didn’t really take into account that blogging in the African bush would be nigh on impossible – but I’ll save you the trouble of reading my sorry excuses and get down to business.
Since departing New Zealand on the 12th May, I’ve visited South Africa, the UK, France, Italy, Greece and Turkey and now I am back in the UK again where I am planning to stay until I get a job at Vogue magazine and visit every corner of the Kingdom and the European continent (far fetched I know – and I’m told regularly – but a dreamer’s gotta dream, right?).
Rather than an essay containing every minute fact and figure from my recent travels I’ll sum it up with a series of “My Top 5 Moments In…..” posts and if you’d like to know more you can leave me a comment or check out my Insty: @everyday_cake
Right, let’s start with South Africa……
My Top 5 Moments in South Africa:
1. Easy. The people I met. Starting with Caitlin and Alex.
Without going into all the gory details, when I left New Zealand to visit South Africa I was NOT in a great place. I wasn’t staying in bed all day crying into my Ben and Jerry’s, but I wasn’t exactly skipping around singing about butterflies and rainbows either. Running away to South Africa seemed like the best, yet worst, thing I could do for myself. Thankfully, upon arriving in Richard’s Bay (actually, before I even boarded the pencil case plane at Johannesburg for Richard’s Bay) I realised I was in good hands. The other people volunteering with WildlifeACT all seemed like legends, and above all – the two girls I was told I’d be spending my first two weeks with were absolute STARS. I couldn’t have asked to meet two more amazing, friendly, genuine, kind, FUNNY, loveable girls than these two. As my time in South Africa went on, I was continually blessed with the people I met. They know who they are, and I am thankful everyday that they all walked into my life.
2. Seeing a wild African animal for the first time.
Nothing could have possibly prepared me for what it would be like to come face-to-face (or close enough without coming face-to-face!) with a completely wild animal – one I’d only ever seen on the Nat Geo channel. It was about 5.30am and we’d been on the truck for roughly five minutes; it was pitch black and the sounds of wild Africa were sending more shivers down my spine than the freezing cold temperatures. To our left (i.e. my side of the open-back truck) we heard the call of a hyena …. very, very nearby. He walked out into the road in front of us, hunched over and grinning just like those three cackling creatures on the Lion King. He stopped and sniffed the air, picking up the smell of the previous day’s impala carcass that had been on the back of the truck, and was soon joined by two comrades who did the same. He looked menacing, a glint of hunger in his eye, but soon scuttled off the road and into the bush on the other side. It was ….. amazing. No matter how many documentaries you’ve watched or how you think you’ll react to seeing a truly wild, savage animal you can’t possibly understand the feeling until it’s right there happening before your very eyes. Shortly after our hyena encounter we passed a lone giraffe and then caught up with the alpha “couple” from the wild dog pack that we were tracking. This was the first of many encounters on my month-long sojourn.
3. Arriving in Somkhanda to ….. well, nothing much!
Alex, Caitlin and I were spoilt for our first three nights in Africa. We stayed at Thanda Private Game Reserve, sleeping in cute thatched cottages, dining on delicious homecooked Zulu food and spending our afternoons lazing around on sunloungers next to the “pool” (ok, it was empty at the time but still…..). When we arrived at Somkhanda Community Game Reserve we were more than a little taken aback. After driving for an hour on unsealed roads that even our driver – the legendary Vincent – was unsure about, we pulled into a lakeside camp and were shown our “house”. If camping is your idea of “basic” then think again. This was a bare concrete room with rock hard mattresses, no bedding, a barely-functioning toilet and no curtains on the windows. We were told to be careful when walking around the camp in case of buffalo and leopard, oh – and watch out for the golden orb spiders hanging down from the trees. What do three girls do in a situation like this? Laugh. It’s all we COULD do. We laughed, and laughed, and laughed. And then redecorated.
4. Truly getting a grasp (or at least a slight grasp) on the problems that South Africa faces.
Again this can’t possibly affect you completely unless you have been there. South Africa is exceptionally, stunningly, beautiful. Her beauty will take your breath away from the moment you step off the plane. When I walked down the steps onto the tarmac at Richard’s Bay I thought I’d died and gone to heaven (or was that just the sedatives I take to fly?). It was paradise personified. But alas, even paradise is not without problems – and massive problems at that. I got a true grasp on just what the difference is between the #firstworldproblems we all joke about, and the real world problems that places like South Africa experience as a part of daily life. I could talk for hours about the conversations we had about the plight of AIDs and HIV victims within the country and exactly how devastating this is to the population, but I am not qualified to do so. What I do feel able to talk about however, are the poaching issues that are very much a part of life for the wildlife monitors on the reserves that I visited. When you see the passion that these men and women have for wild Africa – and literally everything in it – you start to understand the devastation that poaching has on the community, and the nation. From wild dogs caught by accident in snares set for impalas and kudu (antelope) by local hunters; to big time leopard and rhino poaching, it seems that almost no animal is safe from the greedy and gutless endeavours of mankind. Whilst staying at Somkhanda I was lucky to be involved in a leopard survey in which our job was to collect photographic data of leopards in the area, thus giving some hard proof to the government that leopard hunting needs to be stopped due to declining numbers. Leopards are either hunted for their skins, which are seen as a status symbol amongst some tribes, or worse (in my opinion) – they are hunted by tourists who pay big money to shoot a prize animal (which has been baited in to close enough range that even a blind monkey could get a shot at it) often only taking a photo with their kill then leaving the meat and skin for the tour operator to dispose of. It’s sickening stuff and I haven’t even started on the rhinos and elephants yet. For more information on what you might be able to do to make a difference, go to: http://www.wildlifeact.com or http://www.wwf.org.uk (or Google WWF in your own country). Don’t assume you can’t do anything, because you CAN, and even just spreading awareness can make a difference. I take my hat off to the WildlifeACT wildlife monitors, the game reserve wardens and the anti-poaching unit guys who all dedicate their lives to this cause. They are the baddest ass badasses I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.
5. Understanding that Africa isn’t just about lions and elephants, but king rats, honey badgers and slender mongoose too!
Before arriving in South Africa, my goal was to see lions and elephants. “All I want is to see lions and elephants”, I proclaimed to all and sundry. What an amateur, I now laugh. It still amazes me that when I tell people I DIDN’T see the two greatest of all God’s creatures, their reaction is often one of sympathy for me: “Ohhhh noooo, how disappointing” they whine, faces screwed up in such a way that I can read their thoughts, plain as day: ‘What a waste of time that whole Africa debacle was then….’ These are of course people who haven’t set foot on African soil, for if they had they would understand that a) once you’re there it doesn’t matter, you’re in Mother Africa and nothing is greater than that, and b) not seeing the biggest two of the big five means that you spend your time looking for, and admiring, all other creatures great and small. Would I know as much about leopards and have been so excited about seeing one if all I’d been focused on was seeing a lion? To see a leopard strolling down the road at 5.30 in the morning is nothing short of amazing, let me tell you. Would I have appreciated the humble magnificence of a rhino, if I’d spent days following an elephant herd? I now truly believe the rhinoceros is one of the most underrated creatures on the planet and if someone asked me to dedicate my life to ensuring they aren’t hunted to extinction then I would gladly do so! It’s not just the big beauties that are incredible either. Have you ever seen a honey badger strut it’s stuff? Those badasses just don’t give a sh*t – and if you don’t believe me, go and check out this three minutes of pure gold on YouTube: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4r7wHMg5Yjg How about the cane rat? Ever heard of this delightful critter? They are rats the size of small dogs and tend to travel in hilarious gangs of ten or more, bunched together as close as possible. And don’t even get me started on Genets. If nothing else, the fact that I didn’t see lions or elephants is even more of a reason to go back to Africa as soon as possible. As if I even needed an excuse.
So that sums up my top five moments from a month of amazing moments in South Africa. There are many, many stories I could tell (and will, over time) …. Opera competitions on the way home from monitoring the dogs at night (Avè Maria was a solid hit), the “Zulu Bachelorette” episode, dodging spiders the size of mice, nightly braiis, meeting a real life leopard hunter (a blood boiling experience), sundowners, trips to Mkhuze town, I could go on…..
Keep watching this space for another Top 5 Moments In…..!!
Check out @everyday_cake on Instagram!