Sunday, July 06, 2008

Lion, Tigers and... never mind!

So I just spent 4 days in the Kruger National Park. It's pretty much this really massive game reserve in the lowveld, that at some points is less than 100km from where I do fieldwork. I was sent along with a visiting researcher from Australia, who was really cool. It was nice to meet a scientist (with the exception of my scientist friends who are totally rox) who could have a normal conversation about music, dumb horror movies and also cool stuff like geckos and stuff they found in experiments and stuff.

It was weird going there. Firstly, we used to go when I was really small, and I didn't really like it too much. My concentration-span is notoriously short, and my clearest memory is being tired of being cooped up in a car all day (it's a big% area so you aren't allowed to walk around) trying to eat pop-rocks quietly so that my dad wouldn't find out that we were eating in the car. My mom used to snea up pop-rocks to try and keep us quietly. My other memory is of it being super-hot and we bought little hand-held fans for the back of the car, where we found out that if you got new abtteries and put your hand in the way of the blades it really really hurt. I have a few memories of animals, but not nearly as vivid as trying to sleep when it was really hot and stuffy at night, and swimming in the pool at one of the rest camps.

Needless to say, when I was around 10 or so we stopped going to Kruger, and went to the beach on holiday instead, which I was a lot happier with! So the first weird thing (after all that) was the random memories that popped up when I went to places. I remembered things like sitting at a particular picnic site and nearly being mobbed by starlings, and seeing a you leopard (or was it a cheetah?) asleep at the side of the road, or the hyenas we saw once. I really didn't expect to remember all tehse things when we were in terrain so much like my field sites where I've never really thought about those holidays at all!

Secondly, it was really hard for me to be cooped up in a car all day. Partly for reasons that I will not discuss here as I think they are best left alone, and partly because it looked so much like the farm, so we'd go past an outcrop and I'd have to force myself to quell the impulse to jump out of the car and go and look for lizards! I also battled a little bit because I'm actually relatively antisocial and like to take a walk whenever I'm away to get away from people and enjoy the silence for a bit. As ti's all scary and big 5 and stuff I had to be around the australian the whole time. I was proud by how wel I masked my crankiness at times, and other times I took an extra shower or went to bed really early so that I wouldn't have to be all friendly and stuff.

Thirdly: well the Kruger is a big 5 area. This means that the 5 animals traditionally known to be the most dangerous to hunt (and generally be around I think) are there and any walking around ahs to be done in the presence of game guards with rifles. For the record they are: Lion, Rhino, Elephant, Buffalo and Leopard. Anyway althought hunting them is totally out of the question now, there is some prestige attached to seeing all of the big 5 on a trip. Don't ask me why, elephants and buffalo (and Rhino) in some parts are almost as common as impala, and if there really was a prestige-type list it should probably include cheetah, wild dogs, hyenas and a few other things I've forgotten to mention. Anyway the moral of the story is that it is nearly impossible to see all of the big 5, mainly because it's really hard to find (or spot - no pun intended) leopards. We saw it 3 times in 3 days. Really. We saw black rhino - they were reintroduced relatively recently and there are only about 70 individuals in the park, had 3 independent leopard sightings and saw a cheetah with cubs (also something that hardly ever happens). If you;d asked me a week ago what the chances were of somebody seeing a leopard and a cheetah in a single trip to the kruger I would have laughed at you!

And finally, I realised that I actually know stuff! I'm famously bird and buck (antelope) impaired and can barely tell the difference between a pigeon and a mossie (sparrow), but for some reason I knew a lot fo the birds that we saw, and the antelope weren't nearly as difficult as I expected. There weren't as many different bokkies as I expected, and I geuss I've absorbed a tiny bit of bird knowledge from all those weeks in the field, but I was shocked!

I also found out that I'm actually pretty good at chatting to people in Afrikaans. We came across very few English-speakers and if you're driving past people who have just seen a leopard and they and tell you, it really does come in handy. Now I know that my Afrikaans is good, partly from travelling fairly often through South africa, and partly from some close friends who speak Afrikaans at home (and often to me when they forget that I'm English). I've been able to make myself understood and understand people well enough to organise things or ask questions, but I'm always extremely self-conscious and they realsie that I'm English and they either keep it simple or they start speaking English. On this trip I felt completely comfortable speaking Afrikaans, to a point of having random conversations, just chatting about stuff and even on one occasion (after I touched my camera to a hectic electric fence and shocked myself) swearing in afrikaans and then being rather sarcastic to the people who pointed out that it was actually electrified. It was very cool!

Photos are to follow, otherwise this post will go on forever!