Also, we have managed to conclude our grass species composition surveys for this year now and the current interns will assist us in working out the ecological carrying capacity for 2012. Poor old Francois and the volunteers / interns ran around on the transects in temperatures well over 36 degrees C, with the odd thunder-storm and vehicle troubles……..but it is done now!! Well done guys and I am pleased to see the frequency of “decreaser grasses” has improved quite a bit from last years data. Our old volunteers from CVA will remember the days of shouting “shrub-other” to the scribe! At least the elephants behaved themselves and we were not chased out of our transects and plots more than a few times!! So that concludes the grass work and preliminary results look good – our phytomass is much higher than previous years, but the moisture content remains the same, the species diversity and composition is still changing for the better and I expect the Dankwerts Model will show a great improvement in ecological carrying capacity this year. The reserve is well on the mend after the fences were dropped in 2006 and the wildlife has re-established.
We took a little trip to Mozambique through the Kruger Park and ended up lying under an ancient lighthouse near the Barra Reef on the coast – it was amazing! The trip was a success and we have established a few good contacts for the future. Not to mention a great supply of local rum… brewed in the bath in someone’s back-yard, bottled in whatever receptacle you can find… we managed to smuggle 18 litres of the stuff back into camp. The border officials are so easy to bribe here! It did cause a bit of a riot when some local Mozambique citizen snatched the passports and ran off into a massive crown of locals who gather at the border to try and barter for goods. Well… what an episode to get them back and good old English charm and stiff-upper-lip stuff got them back, but a riot almost ensued and we beat a hasty retreat, only to be stopped by an obnoxious off-duty official who demanded a bribe before we could pass back into South Africa. Well… he has never met an unhappy ecologist who steers away from civilisation… the immense throng of humanity that we had endured up to this moment was just too much for me and after one of my more impressive John Cleese-like rants, we got out of there. I was so glad to get back into camp and enjoy a spring-water bottle filled with home-brewed Mozambique rum at the camp-fire!! Bit of a fire-hazard actually!
So, apart from the little adventure, we have had great leopard sightings, one IN camp and one close to camp. The we surprised a magnificent leopard on the airstrip who ended up a Marula tree – so cliché!
The elephants are back after the temporary rhino fence was removed at the end of January and our surveys to monitor their impact on the woody vegetation is progressing well. The recent floods have totally obliterated some of our survey sights and it is interesting that some manages and people are concerned about the impact that the elephants are having on the vegetation, but one flood did more damage than elephants could do in a life-time!
John and Hillary were back for a few months here in camp and we got quite a bit done before they flew back to first-world USA to take charge of Indlovu West again! It was good to have the team back and my liver has only recently recovered.
We also purchased a ”new” caravan which we tried to tow with the old Snatch across the fantastic roads of Balule. Well… the one wheel came off in the first 100 metres and we were forced to drag the thing for 20km – like a giant slug behind the land rover. We made good progress, tearing up the roads and leaving massive gouges as we went at snails pace past the game rangers from the lodges. The looks on the clients faces… priceless! Then we hit the river-crossings on the last stretch to Paradise… the Warden and his Gypsies were forced to build ramps out of rocks to drag the hunk of caravan over these crossings. The poor old caravan got ripped in two pieces in the process as the back end hooked on the rocks!! What a mission! We left a trail of destruction behind us as well as bits of caravan contents that were now spilling out of the back. The smallest little stove and fridge were a sad loss and it looked like a new-age hobbit has lost his kitchen appliances in a desperate attempt to flee the Shire! Well, the caravan-slug is now at Paradise and we have riveted it back together and glued the panels back on with expandable foam! Home-sweet-home hey Stefan?? Anyways, the rats and mice seem to appreciate it!!
The badgers send in raiding parties into the kitchen these days and they defend the kitchen like Lord Kitchener! “wait until you see the whites of their eyes...”. We have a new trick though… place a lit candle on the counter-top… wait until badgers are close… then spray aerosol can into flame directed at Badger. Great fun, but even the flame-thrower has little effect and they really terrorise us here!!
Well, the camera-traps are yielding good results for our work on the “species of whom we do not speak” (rhino). Stefan is out every day hot on the trail of “those who shall remain unnamed” (we do not like to even jinx them by mentioning the word). One of our friends and past volunteers has recently been back to visit and set up his organisation Rhino Mercy and we wish Tom the very best with this endeavour.
All I will say on the “nameless ones” is that all is good here so far and thanks to Stefan for his work with them. He has been chased up trees and almost trampled several times, but the “ones whom we shall not mention” are accepting him and he is able to get a location on all in one day. Next they will be having tea together!
Francois (who is washing the dishes AGAIN – as I write this) has done well to get the field data under the worst post-flood conditions that I have ever experienced in Africa! I even lost my shoes trying to cross what is usually a little stream! They got sucked right off my feed and he had to pull me out of the water before I became an illegal immigrant in Mozambique. Mike, one of our assistants here, also lost a flip-flop whilst we were cutting telephone poles and cables out of a river to open the roads again. But….in some strange twist of fate… we found it again stuck in a tree 3 weeks later!!!! The flip-flop that refused to die! So, thanks Francois for your efforts in the field and around camp – you are a worthy slave. Sometimes, if it were not for his manatee-like bulk, I would call him Dobby the House Elf. Yes, I have been trying to get through the Harry Potter DVD’s on a lap-top that has the battery-life of a land rover. So it takes 4 days to watch a DVD in bits and pieces. I am now so confused with the Harry Potter plot – it is way too complicated for my little mind – but I do like little kittens (inside joke)!!??
Adrian of Afreco Tours and his fiancé Sonya were also in camp with his folks… for about 5 seconds… before they hastened back to the luxury of Ezulwini Billy’s Lodge. It was great chatting and strategising again and I think the Adrian Party was impressed that we could endure the Paradise Camp life-style for all of these years! Yip – that is dedication – But rum also helps!
Ezulwini Lodges played host to the Chancellors and all who’s who in the Zoo of the University of South Africa who visited us for the grand signing of the contract between the universities, Save the Elephants and ourselves. We were very happy now that we have a secure Memorandum of Agreement between the parties again so that our work is legitimised and authenticated once again! These partnerships are critical for us to carry credibility for our research here and I am sure the volunteers and university interns will be pleased to know that their investment has a legitimate place in the Greater Kruger Park.
Well, that is it and I just want to thank everyone who is supporting us here (this could be the longest chapter): Adrian and Adam for their continued support, Viv of Pennies for Elies who is constantly working in the background (in the Mother Land) to support us, as well as Dr. Michelle Henley (StE) who is a constant moral crutch and friend, Ezulwini Lodges for their undying support on the reserve and, of course, John and Hillary of Indlovu West for everything above and beyond the call of duty!! Thanks guys and keep the interns coming!! Dr. Tony Swemmers for his involvement with our tree surveys, Tersia and Dr. Lesley Brown of UNISA for their support at the research Facility and Dr. Mike Stokes and Dr. Bruce Schults for their never-ending advice, support and foot-work from the Western Kentucky University.
The most important people to thanks are our committee on the reserve who never stop supporting our project and activities and the volunteers and university interns who have invested so much into our little endeavours here to conserve this little patch of Africa. Your time and contributions are very much appreciated and are our reasons for existence!