I hope you remember me. I’ve been gone for a while, or actually... I was in the same place, right here in Liuwa, but you know how it goes, busy, tired, stuff happening, no inspiration, no internet and I guess I just didn’t want to write for a while. Maybe I was having a bit of writer’s block, who knows.
So I left Wild&Beast for what it was for a while and man oh man… a lot has happened. Big things, small things, happy things, shitty things. I will try to catch up on everything in due time but I’ve managed to write up two stories from the notes in my phone. And if you can read this, I have obviously managed to post them too.
Sooo... Major things that have happened in the past months:
Monday 16-07-2018: Angola
I'm from a town very close to the Belgian border. After I got my driver's licence at the city hall, my oldest brother and I went for a drive in his car. We didn't take the last exit before the border, we drove straight into a different country. And came back half an hour later.
When my friend Amber had just moved to Nijmegen, a town near the German border, she once told me how she accidentally cycled into Germany one day.
That's how I feel right now. As if, if I'm not careful, I will accidentally enter another country. Not so strange as Mboo and I just checked our GPS's, we are 8.71 km from Angola. We live in Matiamanene, in the middle of nowhere. From there we go to the middle of nowhere on a daily basis and call it work. Yesterday we set off to go and camp at Salwella, a small camp where we have now created a base, Mboo and I rode there on our bikes, 52.5 km Northwest from what we already call the middle of nowhere. And now we are 28.93 km Northwest of thát, following a cheetah. This is as remote as I've ever been, especially on a motorbike. I feel ok knowing that my colleague Mboo (who is a scout) is with me, we can help each other out if need be. Because this is quite an unusual situation when I think of it. There is no communication in this area, not even via radio, we are out here, alone. Even Mboo is not 100% comfortable being this close to Angola, which represents so much more of the big unknown.
It's an excellent test for my strong independent woman attitude, but I'm the first one to admit that I’m not at ease. This is scary but it’s also a thrill and it’s best to stay optimistic, not think about it too much and just know that we always make it back. This is my job, my reality, and I wouldn’t want to miss it for the world.
Tuesday 17-07-2018: Please just shit.
Dear cheetah, dearest LCH-439,
I know I was too late finding you this morning, you know how communication in this area is basically non-existent right? So I had to wait until 07.30 until I finally received your coordinates from my colleague at the ZCP base in Matiamanene. Then I spent 50 minutes finding you, not bad considering I had to drive 8km and you were not at the coordinates anymore so I had to search for you. And I know you had already caught and finished half of your breakfast (a subadult oribi) when I came. That, half an hour later, you were full and tired and bedded under a tree I find understandable. But for heaven's sake could you please, pretty please be so kind... To go and take a SHIT?
Yes, that’s right, I want your shit. I need your shit. I want to put it in a paper bag and take it with me to camp. Your shit is going to mean so much for cheetah conservation all over the country. Do you feel the pressure? Do you understand? I want your shit, and I want it now. Because, don't get me wrong, spending 3 hours with a lazy sleeping cheetah is the best plan I could have for the day, but your brother pulled the same trick yesterday and I really would like to do something useful in the next 6 hours.
PS: I wrote this while waiting for a sleeping cheetah to get up and take a shit (obviously) because we needed cheetah fecal samples. We needed fecal samples so badly that I spent about 7 days in total that month on watching a sleeping cheetah ALL DAY and hoping they would take a dump. My efforts were to very little avail, I ended up with 3 samples.
Thursday – A faded, dirty cap
This is the story of my cap. My ‘pet’ (that’s Dutch for cap).
If this cap/pet could talk it could tell you thousands of stories, for it’s been on my head through most of the happenings I write about here. It would tell you stories about the countless hours in tough conditions it’s endured. About all the times it flew off my head. About all the cool things we’ve done together. About the countless thoughts that have gone through the head that it covered. Happy, sad, calm, excited, desperate, confused or clear as day. It could sing you a thousand songs, because it’s heard them being belted out over the open plains.
If my cap/pet could talk, it would tell you about the many hours following cheetah out on the plains. About climbing trees to get as high up as possible. About hyenas on kills. About surprise meetings with lions. And planned ones. About hundreds of wildebeest herd counts. About scanning the vast plains looking for animals. About the thrill of seeing vultures land. About sunrises, sunsets. About finding shade under the tiniest trees. About flying. About landing. About breaking down. And fixing the problem. About the thinking, the endless thinking. About tough times. Physically, mentally. But mostly about the happy times. The euphoria of finding something new, something old, something surprising or something extraordinary. Bouncing around on the car-roof during prey surveys. Gliding through the tall grass on motorbikes. The cutest cubs, near or far. Hyenas that come very close, without doing any harm. Bright sunshine and the odd bucket of rain.
People often ask me what the hell I’m doing here. My cap/pet was first placed on my head on the 15th of May 2017, and has been there pretty much every day of the past year. After that one year it looks like this, it is ready to retire, it’s done its job, it’s become unrecognisable, it’s time for a new one. If my cap could talk, it could tell you exactly what the hell I’m doing here.
Saturday – See ya later Noeles
A bit of a sad day. Our neighbour, friend and first hour fan of this crazy Wild&Beast thing is leaving… And I kept saying: ‘Noeline, don’t go, you don’t have to, you can just stay.’ But it hasn’t worked. She’s leaving Liuwa and that’s a little sad. Over the past 1.5 years Noeline has become a great friend. Always in for sundowners, lion searches or a simple good talk.
Tonight Daan, Shadrach and I were invited to attend a surprise dinner that Namasiku (the new lodge manager) organised as a farewell for Noeline. The entire staff of the lodge was present, there were many speeches (she almost cried… almost), lots of food and a great atmosphere.
We will miss having Noeline around for sure but I hope she’ll have a good time in Cape Town (and I will visit, of course).
Sunday – Cheetskis
Peter, Daan and I are in the cruiser. We are driving on the road that brings us north, to a point somewhere in the middle of the park from where we will start our prey survey transects. These transects (8km long straight lines) we drive three times a year meanwhile counting and noting all prey species we see, as part of ZCP’s long term research into the Greater Liuwa ecosystem. But we don’t reach that point at the planned time… Because, obviously, something comes up.
As we are driving I see some movement from the corner of my eye and look up to see an animal. Out of habit my first thought is ‘oribi’, but I look again and see that this is quite a strange oribi. In fact… It’s not an oribi, it’s much bigger, but too small to be a wildebeest and too thin to be a hyena. I blink and gasp ‘Cheetah?!’. Then my brain finally believes my eyes and I shout: CHEETAH!!! STOOOOOPPP! NO TWO CHEETAH! OH MY GOD THREE CHEETAH!!! STOOOOOPPPP! Daan stops the car abruptly and we all look at this new, totally unexpected and drastic change of our plans. It’s crazy. We know that there are cheetah in Liuwa (duuuhh), we often know where to find some of those cheetah, we know that there are cheetah that we don’t know, but to actually see some of those all of a sudden is mindblowing and probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen here in Liuwa.
The three cheetah are not too bothered by the car but we don’t see a collar on any of them, meaning that these could be new to our database (we later find that one of them is known to us and has found two other males to form a coalition with). Now we have a choice to make, we could stay with the cheetah (and hope to eventually, in a few days, be able to collar one) which has our preference of course, but we also really need to finish those transects. Buuuttt ZCP Liuwa is a team, meaning we do teamwork and stuff, all day, every day. And so we call our colleague Shadrach, and he will stay with the cheetah today. As we wait for him, the cheetah take down a young oribi, just a little snack for three hungry predators.
"What happens next?" You may wonder. Well… they casually kill a wildebeest calf (quite a big prey) and then bed next to it for the night. I go there the next morning before sunrise, hoping to find them at the same place, but unfortunately they have left the carcass overnight, probably because hyenas are very likely to find it as well. I spend my morning searching for them but the grass is tall, the cheetahs still a little wary around cars and the plains big. So all we can do now is hoping to see them again soon, probably with the same dose of randomness and most likely when we are on our way to do something important.
Hey you! Thanks for visiting my blog (again)! Sorry it's been so long since my last post! Circumstances have become even more challenging now with shit shit internet and no power half of the time. Also, I'm struggling a little to find time and inspiration to write. But I will keep writing and posting albeit even more irregular than before! Just wanted to say: thank you for reading, thanks for following and thanks for your warm reactions, I appreciate all of it :)
Also, I just want to give a head's up that very soon my webaddress will change a little (to wildandbeast.weebly.com), otherwise everything will stay the same! I will let you know when the change is actually happening. Thanks again, enjoy! xxxx
Monday - Dangling
Some days I can’t help but wonder what kind of crazy life I’ve gotten myself into. Today, as I was dangling on a tree-branch, was one of those.
The first question that you could now ask is: “What were you doing in that tree?” Well… In order to find collared animals, we track them. The thing is that the higher you are, the bigger the radius to pick up a signal. And so every now and then I find myself climbing a solitary tree out on the endless plain, with varying success.
Second question you may want to ask: “What animal were you looking for?” A hyena. A collared hyena that hadn’t been seen yet this month.
Time for a third question, go ahead: “Did you find it??” No. No I did not find it. Despite my mad tree climbing skills. I tell myself the animal was most likely miles and miles away. It just had to be. It can’t be blamed on my effort!
Wednesday – Did anyone say… Cheetah?
When I’m out in the field trying to find some hyenas, I receive a radio call from Daan. He has downloaded coordinates of one of the cheetah (a mother, likely with cubs) and she is ‘only’ 12 km from me. I am already quite far away from camp and I have a few good reasons why I can’t go to this cheetah.
For one, I’m busy, and will have a thousand things to do when I get back to camp. Finding a cheetah is one thing, but then I’ll have to stay with her while she hunts, meaning I won’t get back to camp early. Secondly, I’m on a motorbike that actually needs a chain adjustment, which I wasn’t worried about because I wasn’t going too far but it could potentially become a problem when far out in the plains by myself. I usually don’t feel comfortable being so alone, so far away if I can’t rely on my bike and supplies 100%. However often I am in that situation, and however often I make it back without a problem, it always makes me a little nervous.
So I sit for a moment and I contemplate whether I should go to this cheetah or not. Until a tiny but strong voice inside my head whispers: ‘It’s a CHEETAH, with CUBS’ and one of my favourite phrases springs to mind: “there will always be 100 reasons to not do something, but the 1 reason to do it should be enough”.
Damn straight. Suddenly I realise that I won’t be doing this job forever. The fact that I can follow a cheetah all day and call it work is unique and a blessing. Never in my life would I have thought this would be me one day and surely one day I will find it hard to believe that I even had to think about this decision. I mean, that's quite ridiculous! And so I throw my doubt away, decide to look at the chain later and get on my way.
Friday – It’s a happy day
As my colleague Kings would say: It’s a happy day! Why? Because I’m doing a den visit in Mutata and that just happens to have the coolest cubs in the world. They are quite used to the motorbikes, dare to come close and (just like any other cub) see the tires as world’s best chewing toy.
When I get closer to the den, the cubs are still out and they raise their head upon the sound of my motorbike. They get up and come running to me. No joke. For real. They came running. That’s how much they love motorbike tires.
Sunday – Lion searching
One of the lodge guides has seen one of the lionesses with cubs! Obviously I now have to go and find her and take lots of pictures. But there is one problem: we don’t have a vehicle at the moment. So I can’t go and that sucks.
But while I’m out in the field I come up with quite a brilliant plan (if I may say so myself). Apparently I’m not the only one with that exact same brilliant plan because when I get back to camp I have a text from Noeline saying something along the lines of: I’m kidnapping you this afternoon, we’re going lion cub searching! YAAAAYYY this is PERFECT!
So in the afternoon we set off on our search. Luckily the lioness is collared so this shouldn’t be too difficult. And indeed, not too far out of camp I pick up her signal. We follow it until we get to a stream with thick reeds. Unfortunately mother and cubs are resting in there and we can’t see them.
Luckily for us, we didn’t come this far for nothing. We came prepared. The sun is setting beautifully between some clouds, turning them red, orange and pink, we have snacks, drinks and a lot to talk about. We are happy, even without seeing lions today. Shame, now we have to try again tomorrow. Shit man.