Monday – Tough, beautiful job
After a 14-hour journey, I’m back from Lusaka. I did not have many days off since returning from Holland in August, so a break was much needed. A break to realise how incredible the past months have been.
So much cool stuff has happened, planned and unplanned, expected and unexpected. And man oh man… ZCP Liuwa is quite the team! The work we have managed to pull off as a team is incredible and we have some good stories and, most importantly, a gigantic pile of collected, filled out datasheets to prove for it.
Without wanting to blow our own horn too much: We have worked damn hard, tirelessly, every day. From sunrise to sunset (or from sunset to sunrise), from Monday to Sunday, through near-freezing cold and blistering heat, through loose sand and water, through rain and sunshine, through miles and miles of driving and through hours of waiting.
Now that the rain-season has come, we can take it easier for a few months. The rain will flood the plains, limiting our movements drastically. Nevertheless, we will stay in Liuwa and will do whatever we can. The animals are not resting and so neither are we!
Tuesday – Little fairies
One of my favourite start-of-rainy-season things are the termites (and by this I don’t mean the part where they eat literally everything). The first rains are their sign to go and explore the world. Well, the males at least. One day, after a good shower, all the males in the colony develop wings (there is no Red Bull involved in this, by the way) and then, as if someone blows a whistle, they all crawl up and leave the safety of their underground homes.
It may come as no surprise that this spectacle attracts many animals that can’t resist such an easy meal. Toads, birds, bats, dragonflies, ants, lizards, monkeys and many others feast on the unfortunate termites that are not fast enough to spread their wings. But the ones that are fast get to live. Like a fountain of little fairies they fly up, while their women wave them goodbye. They fly and fly and fly until their wings fall off. If they are really lucky, they land in a new place to start their own new colony.
Wednesday – The special wild beast
This is the story of a wildebeest.One that we were very fond of. A bit of a weirdo but very easy to work with.
Wildebeest 11 (WB-11) could be found at the same spot throughout the rain season and herds are overrated if you ask her. Sometimes she would hang out with a sexy bull but mostly she would just stand out. Alone. On the plains. Because of this characteristic we would recognise her from far away and then to make it even more perfect, her herd count was the easiest ever as we would never count more than 2 individuals in her ‘herd’.
Something happened though.
She went out with a bang, and a highly annoying mortality beep on her collar. This time it took me 2 hours to find (what was left of) her.
Maybe it was her loneliness. Maybe she ran into the wrong hyena. What it was we will never know, but WB-11 is no more.
Tuesday – One of these storms
It has finally stopped raining. Right on time for me to go out. I discovered a new den in Lone Palm clan yesterday and am curious which cubs are there.
The den is 10 km from camp and after a few kilometres I take a quick look around to check for storms, just to be safe (I don’t want to end up in a situation like a few weeks ago). I see one that appears to be small and far away. My judgement is that it’s coming from the southeast and will pass north of camp. Nothing to worry about as I will go to the southwest.
Once I get to the den, I have another assessing look at the storm and now see that it is a lot bigger than I thought. Also, it appears to be moving in western direction, which is closer to me than I was expecting. But I am still not worried and continue my work.
Until I look up and can’t see camp anymore. Devoured by the storm it has disappeared in a thick blanket of rain. Soon, my second reference point (Mutata) disappears as well. This has me thinking twice and I now realise that staying out here will definitely get me wet and will possibly be dangerous too. I start my drive back and as the storm rolls closer, I go faster and faster. My third reference point disappears and I am now south of the storm that is too close and big for comfort. I stop to put my gear in my bag and try to prepare for what is to come. Of course I did not even bring a rainjacket…
When the storm hits me, it hits me hard. Sheets of rain fall down and have me soaked in 10 seconds. Thunder roars, lightning flashes. It’s scary. Lightning is beautiful but being in the midst of it on a plain on a motorbike changes the game. I manage to stay on the southern edge of the storm and with a speed that is much higher than I would usually have, I reach the other end of the branch that I got myself into. My ordeal only lasts 2 minutes and soon after, I reach camp safely. As I park the motorbike, the next storm hits. With a sigh of relieve I sit down in the dry kitchen and vow to keep a better eye on the weather next time. And pack a rainjacket.
Wednesday – Gotcha! Fluff ball…
Another early morning. I am on my way to find collared wildebeest when I see a weird fluff ball rolling on the ground. It looks like a scrub hare, but 4 times bigger and with a long tail. I have to look twice to see it’s actually an African wild cat wrestling a scrub hare. A rare sighting as scrub hares are quite big prey for wild cats (they are the size of a big housecat) and those cats prefer to hunt at night. It did not end well for the hare… After a short fight, the cat looks up at me in surprise and tries to drag its prey away from me. It is probably exhausted though and to flee this unexpected interference in its hunt, it has to leave the hare (unable to run but still twitching) for a while. I quickly leave the scene to not disturb the animals any further. When I return to the site later, the hare is gone. Although it could have been grabbed by anything, I sincerely hope the cat came back to claim what was his.
Monday – Reunion continued
After finding that specific wildebeest last week (you know, the one day too late), something else happened that day. I had to break the story in 2, so here is what happened on the rest of that Sunday.
After finding WB-20 and observing that she is happy, with calf and alive, I continue my search for other wildebeest. I find 4 more collared individuals and when I look for my phone to do a herd count on the last one (I use it as a voice recorder), I can’t find it. I frantically search and turn everything upside down but it’s not there.
This can only mean one thing: I’ve lost it somewhere in the park. I know when I last had it, but I also know I have driven about 20 km crisscrossing the plains since then. I know that this can happen, we do lose stuff sometimes and we always find it back, but I am a little worried. As much as I hate to say it: my phone is important to me. It’s my link to the world outside of Liuwa, it allows me to be in touch with family and friends and know what is going on in their life. It gives me entertainment and stores many pictures and files. Heck, I even write 80% of this blog on my phone. So it’s important and I want, no, I NEED it back.
I go back to camp first to ask someone to help me. D volunteers and together we go on our way in the Cruiser. We use my GPS track to see exactly where I’ve been and simply drive the same route (including all detours, bumps and bends) all over, starting from the point where I last had it, with a speed of 5km/h while scanning the ground for a black phone with a pineapple-cover. The search is slow. Very slow.
After 3 km the miracle happens. I see a pineapple. MY pineapple!! MY PHONE!!!!! A hysterical euphoria comes over me and I almost flatten D in my hug. I’m so happy that I don’t even mind the tire puncture we get at the exact same time. D and I change the tire together while I vow over and over and over that I won’t ever take my phone in the field again. Lesson learned.
Wednesday – Flightradar24
Nope, this is not about some kind of very bad 90's song. It's about airplanes. I have an obsession with airplanes… It’s kinda weird. For as long as I can remember I HAVE to count all the planes I can see in the sky at a time. Counting a big number is very satisfying (which is weird because I feel like I should worry about all the air pollution instead). It used to keep me busy on the train, on the bike, in the car… Always. Because in Holland the sky is busy and just when you think you have counted them all, new ones appear and others disappear.
In Liuwa seeing more than 8 aircraft per day is special. That’s a little boring for a plane-counter like me, but it has given me some peace of mind too. My airplane OCD gets a break.
Second part of the obsession: wanting to know the plane’s origin and destination, the airline, etc. Until recently, the closest I would get to knowing those facts was figuring out the direction and taking random guesses. However, I was never sure and that was frustrating to say the least. I have always wished for a website that could tell me exactly where the planes that I see are going to.
Then, last year, someone casually told me that there actually is an app for that (why did no one tell me this before?!). Yes. It exists. It’s called Flightradar24. My gosh, did I get excited! I had to wait for a month before I could download it (shitty bush internet, it’s a common thing here) and then… it turned out to be useless. The app only told me the flight number which I then still had to Google, which (with poor internet) was impossible. Experiment failed. App removed. Back to my good old guessing work. Back to the nagging uncertainty.
Half a year later (when in Holland), for some reason I decided to give it another try and downloaded the app again. To my hysterical excitement, the app had been updated and now actually gave me all the information I had always wanted to know! It’s so beautiful…
Like I said before: In Liuwa, I may be lucky if I see 8 planes fly over in a day, but now I can sit at a den in the morning, knowing that that plane going from North to South over the western side of Liuwa at 6.45, is the British Airways flight from London Heathrow to Johannesburg. I know it has another 1.36 hours to go and that it will be followed by the Swiss Airlines flight from Zürich to Johannesburg at 07.35. It is great. It has made my life a little bit easier and less obsessive.
Friday – One more reunion
II am with 2 cheetah. Both not collared and therefore difficult to follow but great hunters so not something anyone would want to miss. Right now it’s quiet, they are bedded and I am reading a magazine while eating a peanut butter cracker (only the best field cuisine for me!). Then something catches our attention and all 3 of us look up. It’s a lone wildebeest cow running past in what seems to be a panicky state.
Confused, me and the cheetah stare at her and follow her while she runs over the plains (the cheetah possibly with a different motivation than me).
Then, from the opposite direction, we all hear the sound of a mini wildebeest. The cow hears it too and runs even faster now. Soon we all locate the source of the mini wildebeest sound. It’s a calf that is running alongside another cow (let's call this one ‘the aunt’). Upon seeing the panicked cow, the calf starts running even faster, leaving his aunts side. In a beautiful Hollywood like scene it runs towards the cow, who I now believe is the mother. They meet in the middle where cow and calf are reunited. It looked a bit like last week.
I think that cow just went through every parent’s worst nightmare. She lost her child in the chaos that is a normal daily situation. Luckily, the calf was found by a good Samaritan who protected him and helped him finding his mother back.
Unfortunately, my spotted friends have witnessed the scene too. In their cheetah-way they crouch down into stalking mode and slowly creep closer to the delighted cow and calf and the excited aunt. The delight and excitement make the animals fast though and soon they move out of sight. The cheetah are not fussed and resume their important task of snoozing in the shade.
That’s one happily ever after in the land far far away.