Monday 9th of October – Life!
What a morning! Over the weekend D and I had been in the North on one of our wildebeest-camping trips. During the trip it has rained almost every night with this morning being the cherry on top of the cake. For 4 hours, a steady rain cooled us down and relieved the dry soil. I can’t say it enough: it is amazing to feel the rain, the cooler air it comes with and to see the immediate change in the landscape and the species of Liuwa. It brings everything to life. Countless insects have started to come out which in turn lure birds, mammals, frogs and toads out of their hiding places.
When we make our way back to the south, it stops raining, but the fresh air combined with the thousands and thousands of Blackwinged Pratincoles that have come out and are flying over the plains, make the drive one to never ever forget. The birds are everywhere, as far as the eye can see and beyond and they just keep coming. I’ve tried taking pictures but they just don’t do it justice. It’s definitely one of the many things to see for yourself!
Wednesday 11th of October – All of that in one frame
One of the collared cheetah has started coming closer to camp which means we can do hunt-follows with her. I am the lucky one that can go and find her in the morning and I return to her in the afternoon. She is not very active but has moved closer to a pan and just sits there looking around.
Previously today, I had been quite happy about the fact that I had seen all Liuwa’s big carnivores in a day. I had seen hyenas before finding the cheetah and then on my way back to camp I passed the lions. It is quite rare to see all of them but not impossible. This afternoon my carnivore karma is even better. As cheetah sits, something catches her eye. I grab my binoculars and see it is one of the female lions, followed by the others, heading to the pan for a drink. They are not only noticed by me and cheetah. A hyena had been resting in the pan and is scared by the mere sight of the lions. It flees out of the pan and runs straight up to me and cheetah. And I just sit there… My lower jaw has dropped and I forget that I am supposed to write stuff down. For 30 seconds I have a cheetah, 5 lions and a hyena in one frame. Now those are cool sightings!
Thursday 12th of October – Surprise!
I’m following cheetah 180, all day! It’s cloudy and not as hot as usual, so the cheetah can decide to get up to hunt any minute. Not that she looks like she will… But you never know. While she rests in the shade of a tree, I park the bike under another tree and read a book. I look up every minute to check if cheetah is still there, but she doesn’t really move. Until I look for the hundredth time and notice that the familiar shape of her cheetah head is no longer under the tree (cheetah, just like lions, sneak away). So I have to start moving too.
I want to grab my backpack off the ground but it is infested with red ants, all going for my snacks of course. I try shaking them off (while singing Taylor Swift’s famous ‘Shake it off, shake it off, ah ah’) but the more I do so, the more seem to appear from inside. I don’t feel great about the idea of having thousands of little biting buggers in my neck so I put the bag on the rack of the bike. Now I have to hurry because cheetah is moving and I haven’t yet, which means missing data.
I start driving, hoping I will see her. This is not the case so I have to stop, stand on the bike and scan to know where to go. I’m sort of halfway through the ‘stand on the bike’-part when I hear rustling near my foot. I look down to see a massive (like 1.5 metres!) snake raising its head near my foot!
20 hyenas around me? Awesome! Unexpectedly running into lions? No problemo! But if this cool bush-chick is surprised by a snake, she turns into something that resembles a teenage city girl with a beetle in her hair, including (but not limited to) hysterical screaming and irrelevant moves.
So… A sound that, in retrospect, can be best described as a high pitched, panicky, out of breath, ‘fuck’ escapes my throat and because of the sudden sound and movement, the bike wobbles dangerously. I jump off and run a few metres. But my head goes faster than my legs and in one more dramatic move I fall over. Yours truly gets up same second (what if the snake is following me?) and does a few more very fast metres.
Shaking and out of breath I stand still. I look at my bike, try to discover the snake as a sighed ‘I hate this’ comes out of my mouth. As a kickass carnivore researcher I had expected myself to behave cooler than this. But there is only a few things I dislike more than unexpected spider Harry encounters and a surprise snake-encounter is one of them, not helped by the fact that the snake was raising up at me.
Then I gather some temporarily lost courage to move back to the bike step by careful step. I don’t see the snake anymore and assume the poor thing was just as scared as I was. I check once more and then get the hell out of there.
And Miss Cheetah? She had just moved to the next tree… Bitch.
Monday, 2nd of October – Playing is better than hunting
For 2 nights in a row, D and I have been following the lions on their hunt. It’s one of ZCP’s research methods appropriately called ‘Hunt-Follow’. Hunt-follows can be extremely boring. When the carnivore prefers sleeping over hunting, us researchers spend our time in the dark car writing notes, thinking of stories or just watching them sleep while fighting to stay awake ourselves.
But hunt-follows can quickly switch to being exciting and that’s when we witness spectacular chases and skilled stalking. Watching lions creep closer and closer to their prey or racing over the plains after hunting hyenas is exhilarating. After a successfull kill, the carnivores have to protect their precious food from creepers trying to steal it. The details of all of the above is our data, our job to observe and note.
So anyway, tonight we are following lions and though their belly is empty, they are not in hunting-mood. They stalk some wildebeest until one of the youngsters isn’t able to contain his excitement and starts walking around. Hunt disturbing cubs... All part of a lion's life!
After this attempt, the lions walk on and then bed. Soon I am surrounded by sleepers. 5 lions around the car and Daan in the backseat. So I sit, occasionally checking that the lions are not quietly sneaking off. When they finally get up, I’m hoping they will hunt in the last hour before sunrise. But no. Again, no interest in hunting but a preferance to play instead. Kleine Fietsie jumps onto her brothers whenever she can and they roll over, then creep up to here in return and bowl her over. Fietsie is tough as she gets slapped and rolled around a lot but seems to enjoy it and runs back time and time again for more games. The females also join in the games and stalk each other, their nephews and offspring. In the tall grass sometimes all we see is a lion (big or small) jump up before running after another one. Fietsie is obsessed with her mother’s tail. She runs after it, jumps up and grabs it. Mother however, just keeps walking. Fietsie refuses to let go and so for about 10 metres LLi-282 drags her cub after her. That little one is crazy! Eventually, while playing, running and rolling, the lions drop us at Matiamanene before finding some reedbeds to spend the new day.
Tuesday, 3rd of October – Reality check
Daan and Anna are talking to a local woman and her 2 daughters from a nearby village whom have come to Matiamanene to sell tomatoes. Daan buys many for our and the other camp.
A few hours later I am identifying some hyenas on the laptop when the woman and girls come back to say bye to Daan, but he is not around. One of the girls sees a photo of a hyena on my laptop screen and walks over with a big, curious, smile. Soon her and her sister and mother are gathered around me while I show them photos of hyena(cubs), (baby)monkeys and Liuwa birds. Anna is there to translate while I explain things with the photos and the children ask me questions. They mesmerise at photos of hyenas eating a wildebeest, especially when I tell them that the hyenas have hunted it themselves. I enjoy showing them the photos and love their reactions, many oohs and aahs and excited screams of the local names of the animals.
Only after they have left to return to the village, I realise that though they might live in Liuwa, they have probably never seen hyenas, birds and baby-monkeys from that close.
Later I talk about it with Anna and she adds that they had never seen a laptop before either. That thought had not even crossed my mind… They live in a small, remote village, far away from towns, many things that were on my desk at that moment are things that they have never seen, let alone know what they are for. Imagine! It has me thinking as I’m trying to imagine the life they have grown up in that is so different from mine. It is these small things that make me realise once again how damn fortunate I have been and still am every day. Reality-check!
Wednesday, 4th of October – Treasure hunt
Today is community day. On these days, the ZCP team goes to Mishulundu school to contribute to the conservation club, a group of children of various ages that are interested in conservation and come together every Wednesday to do activities around this theme, all organised by the school. We give presentations, show them what we do, do quizzes and tests and Teddy, Kings and Mboo even took some children on a gamedrive to see the lions! This kind of work is extremely important to educate this new generation and make them aware of the unique and beautiful landscape and animals they are surrounded with.
Today we are doing an activity that resembles a treasure hunt. We hide some radio-collars (ones we use for animals) in the bush around the school, divide the group in 4 separate groups, give them tracking equipment, explain once more how it works and then all groups are off to find their hidden collar. We as ‘helpers’ are not allowed to actually help as we want the children to get a feeling of what it’s like to be a real carnivore researcher. The children are extremely enthusiastic and because the groups can see each other, soon the whole activity ends up in 4 groups of kids running straight through shrubs and bushes in search of their target. Although not every group gets there in a straight line (read: Sandra did a lot of bushrunning behind her group that day), all collars are eventually found. Everyone is happy, screaming, still running and proud of each other and as one big massive group we all walk back to the school, where Mboo gives a final speech about the value of hard work. A very happy and successful day I would say!
Friday, 6th of October – A bunch of wildebeest
We’ve seen the first wildebeest calf! The actual first calf was seen last week by Teddy, but now Daan and I have seen one as well! Wildebeest are cool for many reasons and one of them is that in a timespan of 1-2 months, pretty much every adult cow gives birth to a tiny little white-brownish calf. From the one day to the next the plains are filled with mother-wildebeest and their calves.
Another cool fact: Wildebeest can delay the birth (yes, hold it in!) for about a month depending on when they feel the rains are going to start! Isn’t that just miraculous?!
The peak of the birth period is in October, so… Now. Today we still have to look for calves and see one per day, next week we’ll get tired of counting them. As the calves are so small and surprisingly well covered behind their mumsy, one would expect it to be difficult to see one. But it’s not. Daan told me something useful: when the first calves are born, the herd doesn’t understand this small creature in their midst and has to get used to it again, after all it’s been a year since they last saw a fellow that small. So wildebeest gather around the newborn and its mother and keep it in the middle, protecting it but also getting the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the new weirdo.
So basically, if you see a pile of wildebeest running from one side to the other it is likely that there is a calf (and its poor mother) in the middle of which every move is followed. Yes this is funny. Picture a bunch of wildebeest sticking together like glue and running from left to right and back without any obvious reason. Then ask yourself: what the hell are these guys onto?! Then check if you see any legs that are white and much smaller and you’ll know the answer.
Monday, 25th of September – SHOPPIIIIINGGGG
Today is SHOPPING day! But Liuwa-style. I’m excited because for the first time in 2 months I get to exchange the Liuwa dust for (equally dirty) Mongu town dust. I’ll be out of Liuwa for a few hours and get to buy lots of food. Of course, that last fact is the most exciting of all.
We leave at 6.00 am because with the to-do list we have and the 3-hour drive to even get to Mongu, we are going to need as much time as possible if we want to make it back tonight.
So off we go. We plough through the loose Liuwa sand, which the Landrover handles excellently. We make it to the pontoon not even 2 hours later. I handle the challenge of driving the car onto the pontoon and helped by a man in a Jumbo shirt (Jumbo is a Dutch supermarket chain) we pull ourselves across the Luanginga river and then proceed for another hour to reach Mongu.
The day in Mongu is eventful but it’s not. I love being in Mongu because we can find stuff (food, storage items, etc.) there that is not around the corner in Matiamanene. But after a few hours, Mongu just becomes the busy, dirty, dusty town it actually is. We go from A to B to C back to B back to C and to A to get everything we need, stuff the car with it and fit all the groceries somewhere in between. Furthermore we:
After we checked almost all items off our list, we start the drive back to Liuwa and reach camp after sunset with a car full of nice Mongu stuff. For the next 3 weeks I’ll have plenty to cook and that makes me happy.
Wednesday, 27th of September – Rain…… RAIN!!!
I think I’ve said it before, but I’ll do it again. Liuwa in dry season is beautiful, but it’s full of heat, dust, ash and smoke. So much that you can’t spend an hour in the field without returning with a clogged nose and pores and a layer of black ash on everything.
Today we are pushing that exposure to the limit. We are doing prey surveys. Something which we do once every 2 months in the dry season. In short it means that we are driving 16 transects of 8km each with two people sitting on top of the car who give a shout for every prey-mammal-species they see plus some details. It’s fun, it’s boring, it’s hot, it’s nice, it’s sweaty, it makes colleagues irritating (read: Daan and I get irritated with each other), it makes colleagues funny, it’s everything at once.
Today is a bit different though. Today, while doing the work, we are watching a cloud. It’s tiny at first, but as the afternoon unfolds, it gets bigger and bigger, it becomes fluffier and eventually… covers the sun! Sheer relief! Clouds are something we don’t see here in the dry season. For about 5-6 months the sky is blue (or grey-ish when there’s a lot of smoke and dust in the air), with nothing to stop the sun from relentlessly shining on the land.
As a proper Dutchie I used to dislike rain, because there is so much of it in Holland, year-round and you never know if and when you’re gonna get it. Now, I have let go of that idea. Rain brings change, rain brings coolness, rain is all we can think of on days like these, together with the knowledge that it can still take over a month for that rain to come.
After we have returned to camp by the end of the afternoon, we feel the wind direction change and there is some actual rumbling in the far distance. We listen to it, mesmerised and excited, it’s something we haven’t heard for 5 months. We are convinced though that it won’t rain, since it is only the end of September, way too early.
When we go to bed, the faint rumbling has become louder but still not very convincing. Until we hear a tap on the tent. And another one, and another one. Rain…. OH MY GODDDDD! IT’S RAIN!!!!! We jump out of bed and stand outside. It’s only 5 drops, just enough to feel one on my face and one on my arm, but it is actual rain! It’s super early in the year, usually the first rain falls 3-4 weeks later, but what a great feeling this is. The rain brings some cooler air and makes everything smell fresh. It is the ultimate surprise in dry season!
Friday, 28th of September – Finally: Kleine Fietsie!
So this is a story I had wanted to post over a month ago, but I had to be patient until the big news was brought out through other sources, so here we are, rather late than never!
It’s been almost half a year since we saw lioness LLi-282 mate, and I have been so excited ever since. As I don’t have to explain to anyone here, the observed action would almost surely mean the birth of new lion cubs roughly 105 days later, which was end of June. This would be 282’s first litter, she’s quite a young mother. With an inexperienced, first-time mother, the survival chances for lion cubs are naturally very low. Knowing this, I tried to keep my hopes high but the expectations low (as many times before I have to remember that nature will take its course, whatever that may be).
For weeks we were monitoring 282’s movements and we noticed that she kept coming back to the same place. First a reedbed (a very good spot for cubs, safely tucked away, difficult to find for hyenas and raptors), later to (appropriately called) Birth woodland, the place where she spent the first weeks of her life as well. Sometimes she would leave for one to several days, during which she would hunt together with her sister, then with a full belly she would return again.
This morning we went to find the lions. They were on the road and first we saw LLi-281 and then LLi-282 and the youngsters. Then LLi-282 got up and started walking and there, clumsily darting behind her through the tall grass, was another tiny, brown, little lion. A healthy, 8-week old, happy, chubby cubbie that is adorable to watch. The cub is so small it still fits under its brothers, it is not scared at all and runs and plays by itself if no one else wants to play. Luckily the big brothers are always up for a game. I have started to call the cub Kleine Fietsie which literally means: Little Bike. Of course this is not an official name, I just thought of it because it resembles a child on a bike, cycling behind his mother, focussed but still swerving all over the show and not quite able to keep up with the pace. Kleine Fietsie is healthy and chubby and the first cub for LLi-282. I can’t wait to watch it grow and I’m hoping it’s a she, to bring some extra girlpower to the Liuwa pride! I’ll keep you posted!