Saturday, November 21, 2015

Saturday in Durban

A Morning Bike Ride
Dad likes to take the dogs running on Saturday morning.  Dad rides his mountain bike and the dogs run alongside (on leashes) or - when its wild - free. Ingrid is worried about this because the dogs sometimes run in front of the tyres and make Dad fall off.  Being almost 70, this is a bit risky but he does it anyway.

I haven't been exercising so I agreed to go on a morning ride with Dad. He said "about 5.30am" which is early but we were on Game Reserve Time so it seemed okay.

This morning, at first light Dad tapped on my bedroom door and we dresssed quickly and drove north up the coast road to a sugar cane plantation where Dad likes to ride.  There is a lovely dirt road by the river where weavers nest and monkeys bark from the huge groves of bamboo.  As we arrived at the gas station where he parks, I asked what time it was.  It was 4.45am.

"I thought it was dark because of the weather" said Dad.  There were storms last night with high winds, thunder and lightening.  The sea was calm but the sand was wet and there were twigs and fallen baby avocados on the ground in the garden.

We rode off with the dogs and the first half of the ride was easy.  We passed a man walking through the cane with his fishing rod on the way to the beach, some workers with their green overalls and work boots walked up to a farm with a blue tractor and otherwise not even the monkeys were awake.

The second half the ride was really hard! We road up a steep and endless red-earth and gravel road through the cane.  Dad's bikes gears are crap and so they kept crunching and slipping.  My thighs muscles were twitching and I felt ill with exertion. Is Dad 70 or am I?  Eventually, at the end of the endless hill Dad said "We are almost at the highest point.  Do you want to go the short way home or the other way which is 10% further".

This was a blantant lie.  We were far from the highest point and I doubt it was 10% further.  After many more ascents and steep descents, I am now mud splattered and exhausted.

A good breakfast of haloumi and vegges with wicked cheesy-hash-browns and two coffees has softened the memory but I could do with a nap.

Day 6: Hilltop and Back to Durban

Hilltop is humanity. Wren is 100% happy here. We have learned that an important feature of humanity is a building which does not have holes by which nature can enter. Down at Munyaweni the floorboards had up to half cm gaps which is how the scorpions and spiders wandered in. The eves were also open which is how the bats and snake came in and the walls in some parts of the house were only slatted bamboo. Even the doors were more conceptual - without locks or fastenings beyond a piece of wood which rested in a shallow depression.

As Lanny reflected after seeing the lion run away on the day walk iions don’t want to come into human places. Now hyenas are another matter.

Anyway, Hilltop camp has nearly sealed rooms. The floors are tile and the eaves are sealed.  We slept wonderfully and only a line of ants carrying a dead beetle disturbed our sanctuary.

Morning Stroll at Hilltop
On our morning walk in Hilltop we saw a crushed scorpion in the road which ants were eating.  Wren was interested but didn’t want me to take it home and draw it.  Monkeys were out eating in the fruiting trees and flying across the gaps in the canopy with noisy scrambling landings.

We enjoyed a buffet breakfast with many sausages.  Wren likes South African breakfasts because, unlike the US, there are many meats.  On the buffet was pork sausage, chicken sausage, thick rasher bacon, eggs, tomatoes, spreads (Marmite, Bovril, tomato sauce, peri-peri and two mustards) and toast.

The German tourists were upset because they had to queue to make their own toast. They felt this was inefficient and complained.  There was sometimes a gap in toast-manufacture when the person in front of the line waited for their toast to appear but didn’t anticipate the toast-needs of the person behind them.

Fetching the Hikers
At lunch we fetched the hikers from the Trails Camp near Mpila.  They had had a great 3 day hike - being surrounded by lions in the darkness, by elephant and being semi-stormed by a bull elephant.  The Adams shareholders were red-faced, slightly burnt and thrilled by the experience.

We stopped at the Litchi Orchard Delish Sisters near home and had more food.  The litchis are still not ripe and the monkeys are stealing them, green or not!

It was good to be home. Nobody wanted dinner.

BBC News is only talking about the Paris bombings and the Mali Hostages.  It is so repetitive that we decided not to watch anything.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Day 5: Munyaweni - Baboon Spider

Wren is afraid of spiders but also fascinated by them.  Hearing that there were bats and a Baboon Spider in Lanny and Pete's cabin, he wanted to go and see them.  He prepared to enter with his wooden panga in one hand and his pangolin carving in the other.

We did not see the baboon spider.  Wren said "Knowing there is a baboon spider but I do not know where it is is EVEN WORSE than seeing a baboon spider."

He thought a bit then added: "Or you could say, if you don't know its there its not really there. So I am okay".

Lanny took a picture of it which she will share.  For now, here is the Baboon Spider Atlas and I trust that if you want to see it you google Harpactira Baboon Spider for a picture.

Preparing to enter the Baboon Spider Zone with panga raised. 
Playing Disc World afterwards

Day 5: Munyaweni - Moth Tent and the Beast

Dawn Chorus
Being in Kwazulu-Natal I am reminded why I was a birdwatcher.  During the dawn chorus every bleating, trilling, cooing-thing gives voice.  Sitting on my balcony at 5am I saw:
  1. Two livingstone's turaco (were louries) walking around a fig tree.
  2. A pair of black collared barbets.
  3. The usual white-eyes, european swallows, fork tailed drongas, Hadedahs and doves.
By 6.00 am the song had faded to calling and I could hear the barks of baboons coming down to the last remaining water.

Something Chewing This Way Comes
Last night, our cook (Siyabonga) heard the sound of chewing outside the lodge where we were eating. We are light starved and had only two small flashlights with AA batteries which cast a narrow LED beam that can’t get into the shadows.  He poked at the night thorn brush with it and then said “Maybe buffalo.”

I asked what it sounded like and he said “grinding”

This is reassuring because its what herbivores do. 

We all tried to listen but when we were quiet we realised we are very noisy.  I could hear David chewing his cheese flavoured rice crackers “CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH” and Wren was full of mutterings and squeaky floorboards. As is usually the case, I could not hear myself so I am either a ninja or selectively deaf.

A short while later Siyabonga beckoned us to come to the balcony where he said the “Rhino is very close”.  Indeed, some large chomping beast was just below the balcony. Unfortunately, when we arrived with our crappy torch and crashing noise the Beast took fright and lumbered off blowing wind like a huge horse.  It was a hippo!  

We poked at it vaguely with the ineffectual torch but could only see a reddish-brown shadow moving down the creek.  Our hippo!

Sounding much like my mother, I said “Hippos are very dangerous” and Siyabonga looked at me and said nothing. Wren put his anti-moth-shawl-tent over his head and we went back to dinner which was pasta and canned tomatoes sauce.  It was fabulous!  David is on a diet at could not eat the pasta and sauce so he had potato and squash, loud rice crackers, sliced meat and salad.  He is able to eat whole platters of salad.

The Moth Tent
The hawk moths were pretty bad in the kitchen tonight.  There were at least 10 large ones sitting on the window under the light.  Large means 1 to 2 inches from head to tail. Whenever you went into the kitchen or changed the lighting of the room, they adjusted position and flapped and clung around (one’s head) in a  way that alarmed moth-sensitive Wren who kept spinning his head around wildly watching for them, and could not eat.  David offered to be on Moth Watch so Wren could concentrate on food.  

“Moth coming” he’d call and Wren would duck under a tent made from my pashmina.

Wren in the Moth Tent

“All clear” said David so Wren could eat some more pasta.

“Go under for a bit” - as one particularly fat-bodied moth thumped on the table and relaunched at the light.

“Keep eating now!” as they settled.

When are we going back to Humanity?

"When are we going back to humanity?” asks Wren?  

Apparently this bush lodge is not humanity at all despite having a full bathroom in our room, partial electricity and lovely walkways through the bush.  The lack of fence, dull lighting, unfenced accommodation, large insects, beasts moving around at night and lack of other people make Wren feel that we have left civilisation. I am looking forward to taking him to the Okavango sometime when he is 12.

“Hilltop Camp is half humanity” he says.  Being right out of the Game Reserve is full humanity.

Tonight we head for half-humanity.

"Humanity is the human race. In the game reserve there are too many animals and that does not feel nice.  Animals could prey on you at any moment.  The moths pester you.  Ideal humanity is where I live in Seattle. I mean, I do like the game reserve but only when I am in the car."

This insect infestation contributes to lack of Humanity.
These are flying ants which were mating on Wren's dinner plate.
This is zebra. Does it make you afraid? It is not humanity.
We have been driving around for 4 days hoping to see an animal for which
we could be prey. We did not find one. (Wren: "but it could eat us so its not Humanity")

Day 4 Munyaweni: Afternoon

Highlight of the afternoon drive was a warthog with two tiny piglets.  They were just the right size for an eagle to snatch.  They spent their time under their mother, in her shadow or running around after each other around her before dashing back into safety.  She was walking along rooting in the ground.

The lions from yesterday had moved down off the ridge and were now in the riverside scrub where they were low to the ground and only visible from game trucks.

We saw some buffalo, rhino, zebra and warthog in a close group by the road.  I hope these pictures upload.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Day 4: Munyaweni: Wednesday Morning November 18, 2015

I slept in until I was woken by Wren, thrilled by a fully charged iPad.  Baboons barked, a gecko clicked like a switch and I saw large black monkeys in a fever tree. The weather has changed completely from the day before.  Instead of blue skies and baking heat, we are under light cloud with a strong breeze and the bush feels restless. Rubbing boughs of the fig tree moaned and creaked together in the wind and Wren kept asking “what is that sound?” for every creak, trill and crackle.

I rinsed the bat poop from the bath and had a hand-shower wash in the tub.  It was kind of cold because the wind comes through the bamboo-slat walls and the on-demand water heater only engaged when hot-only was turned on. This made it impossible to get warm water for more than a few seconds - in the transition from hot-only to cold-only.  Wren remained cocooned in his mosquito net until absolutely necessary to emerge but found his hot-cold hand shower engaging.

Thank god, Wren and my hut seems relatively uninhabited.  Our moths, geckos and bats are pretty chill by comparison with the others:
  1. David had a green Spotted Bush Snake fall from the roof of his hut while doing yoga.  It landed 1m from where he was lying doing yoga.
  2. Lanny had a cockroach on her pillow. (Whatever)
  3. Pete and Lanny had a baboon spider on their ceiling and a wolf spider on their wall. They also have extra bats roosting in their bathroom.
  4. Pete nearly trod on a scorpion.
It is either that or I am unobservant.

On Mushrooms
On the morning hike yesterday, Dad noticed a mushroom growing from rhino dung. He took a photograph. I have not received it from him yet because he is hiking the trail without connectivity but I bought a local mushroom guide and am interested in the mix between familiar species and African endemic varieties. The guide makes mention of a number of medicinal uses of the local mushrooms and explains more about the termatomyces than I knew previously.  Our ranger also explained that there are at least 3 types of common termite here and each has mushrooms which grow, and he believes that mushrooms grow in the site of lightening strikes where there is nitrogen in the soil.

We drove out to Hluhluwe town to draw cash for tips.  Tufty brown cattle with poking ribs grazed the nearly flat grass strip by the roadside.  The fields are all bare dirt but for a thin band of grass that grows by the bitumen, probably from water runoff after the recent rain. Goats standing on their hind legs ate the leaves from the low thorn trees and acacia.

2pm:  The ipad is at 46% already.

Here is Wren doing his homework at the kitchen table in the lodge.

Day 3: Munyaweni Lodge Tuesday: November 17th, 2016

It was very hot today, the first day of sunshine. The puddles from Sunday night’s rain have completely evaporated, and Wren and I did not see anything new on our morning drive to Memorial gate. 

We did have very good sightings of giraffe, buffalo and Zebra and I took a video of a giraffe on a casual stroll by our car.  This was with my Samsung phone. Wren remains in a state of heightened alert and on this drive his fear was that we would run out of petrol / gas. The tank was under 1/4 full and we planned to drive 50km before the petrol pump opened.  The tank estimated it had 110km in it but this estimate changed suddenly on an ascent and Wren sat monitoring the gastimater for the whole drive. 

His fears:
The size of his planters wart / veruka
The iPad battery lasting

He has found he likes:
The bats roosting in our bathroom
Cream Soda
Mosquito netting

While we were out on our game drive, Dad, Ingrid, Lanny and David walked in the bush with the guide and the gun.  The guide lost one bullet from his belt and was concerned.  They are rifle cartridges. They were downwind from a lioness walking on the other side of the valley - about 100 m away. Baboons were heckling her.

During breakfast a group of trackers with rifles came into camp to see my photo of the injured rhino.  Apparent they lost 6 rhinos to poachers last month and found two dead rhinos in this area too.  They were killed as a result of territorial battles with other rhinos. I recorded a rhino with a large open wound on its front leg and a puncture wound on is rear leg. Apparently they tracked this rhino and gave it antibiotics.

Day Drive to Mpila
After breakfast Pete, Lanny, Dad, Ingrid, Orion, Wren and I drove down to Mpila in Umfolozi reserve.  The drought was far more evident there - the elephants were walking down the middle of the umfolozi river and it was completely empty.  They dug holes with their trunks to access groundwater, drank from them then ate the elephant-grass by the riverbank before sauntering away.  The nearby hills are burnt red and all the thorn veld is dead without any green. Mpila was a harsh, hot place - burnt earth and dead thorn bush which made it look like a boma around the camp.  No wifi for Orion and only impala, kudu and elephant.  

We were lucky to see a few interesting cuckoos very close to the road. We saw Klaas’s cuckoo and the Red-chested Cuckoo.

We quickly drove back to the Hluhluwe area via the curio village where Wren purchased an assagai and panga and a pangolin carving. He finds the pangolin cute but has no hope of seeing one except on youtube.

The baboons are barking “rar, rarrr, rarrr” outside our window.

Swimming at Hilltop
Wren and I had a quick swim in the milky swimming pool at Hilltop. The plastic tube-wrapped pool chairs sagged comfortably and a troop of monkeys moved across the bush in front of us, sentinels watching carefully while the young ones swung and jumped gathering young figs and flowers. Two Afrikaans-speaking girls read magazines and helped each other apply sunblock under the straps of their swimsuits.

Wren was concerned by all the insects floating in the pool - white ants which rose on the previous day of rain, dead bees, wasps, dragon flies and some longicorn beetles.  I scooped them out for him and waited for the expected resurrection.  No matter how dead they look, I have found most ‘drowned’ beetles revive. The largest longicorn beetle was a beauty, with red and black striped wing-case.  Although he looked quite dead - his legs curled limp and lying motionless in my hand, first one feeler started to twitch, then another.  Ten minutes later a leg protruded and then another.  He stood up on the bark I provided - taking a while to get each foot positioned correctly then his abdomen pulsed (I think his wings were wet and too heavy to open).  I carried him on some bark to a good spot on top of a garbage can and by the time we had finished swimming, he was gone.

Night Thunder Drive
We joined a night drive from Hilltop.  Lanny and Pete described this as the dullest night drive EVER.  We saw nothing that needed to be out at night. At dusk some zebra trotted along the road, looking nervously over their shoulders.  We found the smallest baby rhino I had ever seen - only slightly larger than a dog - trotting after its mother with oversized feet padding - and saw a lion as large as a pinhead on the opposite hillside. 

Other than the the major action was the weather. Spectacular tropical thunderstorms massed to the south of us.  At first there were huge white walls of cloud which turned into thunderheads, blackening and dropping. The guards were hoping the rain would come here but it stopped at the ridge of hills just South and East - the rainline cutting the sky in half.  One half the sky was a wall of black clouds and constant lightening, with rolling thunder while the other was a blue-skied sunset.  The huge forks of lightening was so bright and close that the driver redirected us away from Isivivaneni valley to the Memorial Gate road. Wren kept asking “Are we past the worst of the storm?” and fearing for his life.  The constant flashing across the black horizon lasted for over an hour as the thunder became more distant. Unfortunately, the rain bypassed this area and we had only a slight smattering last night.

Today, we can all feel the promise of rain.  The white ants are in the air, there are low clouds and the long gusts of wind feel damp and cool.  I keep expecting to hear fat raindrops pattering on the windows, but nothing happens.

Munyaweni Day 2: Monday Night

The Internet Cafe.
There was no internet today at Hilltop Camp.  There were no power plugs to charge either because we are on some kind of minimal solar array. The power turns off when solar store runs out and returns at dusk only if there has been sunshine. Orion managed to get a bit of Vodacom cell signal and set up a hotspot by the road.  Here is the internet cafe.

There are ongoing tensions in our large group between groups trying to do different things with scarce cars. The latest is that some people have no ride back to Durban because their expected ride is going direct to Jbg and the alternative ride is leaving a day earlier to catch a plane to Cape Town. There was a round of negotiation and recrimination and now the lost folk are going to hire a car outside the park and drive themselves.  

The WhatsApp Group
The game reserve has a whatsapp group where you can report game. Today it reported a lion kill by the road to Mpila.  Everything reported is far away and long ago because of the huge park size and intermittent connectivity. 

Quiet. No lion noises.  We had a braai around a campfire with steak, chicken sausages and chicken drumsticks. Baboons barked from the last remaining waterhole on the river which is around the corner.  Apparently the hippos have holed out there and on the morning walk the group saw fresh hippo spore. It seems increasingly unlikely Wren will get eaten by lion.

During dinner the lights suddenly shut out when our solar battery charge ran out.  Wren was distraught. Everyone else was a bit unprepared. It was blacker than any near-urban blackness - fully “no hand in front of face” blackness with the sounds of the bush - cicadas and other bleating insects continuing unconcerned.  I found a flashlight and Lanny found candles but it was still very close, dark and quiet, with the moths diving into the flames, so we went to bed early at 8.30pm.

The problem of luggage
Earlier that evening there was a drama. Ingrid had been told that those going on 3 day game trail had to have their luggage at Mpila base camp - 45km away - by Monday evening. Jane A told her this was not true. Our guide told Ingrid it was true and if she and Dad did not have their bags down there tonight they would have to carry them because the donkeys which carry luggage leave at dawn for the walk to the first day camp. 

The guide made  plan with Ingrid to drive down to Mpila after dark. This is not allowed usually because there is a curfew in the park to prevent rhino poaching and to reduce risk to animals from night drivers. At dusk the park and camp gates close and no private vehicles can be on the road without a ranger.  

Ingrid called Alistair and Jane but they said they would work their luggage out tomorrow.  Ingrid drove down with David and Siyabonga. Buffalo loomed out the darkness by the road and a genet cat ran across in front of them. The highlight was  a leopard which stopped on the road in front of them and walked slowly along the road in their headlights. 

We remain uncertain who is right about the luggage. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Day 2: Munyaweni

Day 2: Munyaweni Bush Lodge
I woke with the light and checked the ground for scorpions. The wind had stilled and there was a pale grey sky. So I got dressed and checked my phone had charged. It was 0% because they power had turned off overnight.  I checked the iPad and it was 4.53am but it was light.

Wren struggled to escape his mosquito net cocoon, then dressed and we walked quietly to the car. The Nyala family were awake and skittered away. We went on a morning drive for a few hours.  There were few animals around and occasional squalls of light rain came across the bush.  We could see them moving from distant hills which greyed and had to turn the wipers on.  Some giraffe were eating close to the road - an adult who found some tender leaves and a smaller giraffe who could not reach - and we saw a common duiker run across the road then pause and look back.

Wren’s favorite sighting was a tortoise who was paused, dangerously, in the tire-tracks on the dirt road. I stopped right back him and opened the door to chase him off the road.  When I did, he stood up and walked off with purpose and some speed - each food improbably flat and his body absolutely unbending which gave him a cartoon appearance - like a walking box. Wren loved the tortoise (calling him a turtle) and we watched him till he rested up the trail.

Near camp we saw a Greater Scimitarbill.

Camp breakfast was good - scrambled eggs and snooker paté - with strong coffee and fresh pineapple. Lanny and Pete told us about the bats roosting in their bathroom - they have foxy faces and big ears and poop everywhere.  Davids shower has no hot water and Dad and Ingrid have only one light.

The Internet Cafe.

There was no internet at Hilltop Camp.  There was no power plugs to charge either because we are on some kind of minimal solar array. The power turns off at 10pm and returns at dusk. Orion managed to get a bit of Vodacom cell signal and set up a hotspot by the road.  Here is the internet cafe. [image later when we have internet)

Day 1 Bush: Durban to Hluhluwe Game Reserve

Day 1: Durban to Hluhluwe
We left early for Breakfast at Delish Sisters in Salt Rock. Its located in a Litchi Orchard and the fruit were ripening on the high branches.  After an excellent breakfast we headed up the north coast and stopped at Inseleni for a mushroom check. Dad showed me some spots where he had seen fungi in wetter times. We found a few which I found extremely interesting and unfamiliar:

Small orange ones (they look the color of witches butter but are firm and more branched).

Fuzzy capped stipeless.

Large spongely-fibrous mushrooms.

Similar to turkey tails...

Natal is in a serious drought. We crossed the Umfolozi River which was completely dry but for a deep channel that had been excavated to keep water accessible to locals. At the Nyalazi gate the weavers were nesting - making loops of grass in a tree in a cacophony of chirruping and trilling. Male and female pairs were working together to weave the balled nests with long channel corridor.  Males demonstrated with fluffing and bobbing, jutting their wings out in display.

“They have a serious weaver infestation here” said Lanny, as Wren and I were marvelling at them.

Driving to the bush camp we were lucky enough to see a pair of african wild dogs on the road.  They were much larger than you’d expect, with long legs and big ears. We also saw giraffe, Nyala, Impala, Zebra and a number of white rhino.

Dinner Drama
Dinner was a strange affair.  The cook was either stoned or drunk and forgot to cook half the chicken and all the potatoes.  Ingrid had to come to the rescue and save the day.  The energy saving lighting is so dim that a single cone of normal light is suspended over one chair in the 20 foot square dining room. The poor souls sitting under this cone of light are constantly assaulted by swooping moths with soft heavy bodies and clawing feet that dive and fall on them then clamber up the body and fly off.  Wren was this soul and quickly developed a fear of moths, sitting in place starting at the light trying to track the next attack.  I told him not to bother and that moths were fine, until a hawk moth flew from my leg into my face and, involuntarily, I screamed.  This rather validated Wren’s perspective! 

Pete was also not too keen on the moths but handled his concerns - having a greater fear of spiders, cockroaches and scorpions. After a while sharing “spider alert” stories - including one in which Peter and Lanny found a tarantula inside their mosquito net in Guatemala, Wren moved seats and sat in darkness, crying occasionally that he wanted to go “to our room to get away from the moths". This calmed eventually as the attacks lessened - until Pete yelled “Scorpion” and ran to the other side of the room. There was a 5 inch long scorpion with huge pincers sitting on floor in dining room dark.  Wren stood on a chair while it scuttled around. Dad pursued it and swept it into the next room where it vanished into the large gaps between the floorboards.

The cook said “They are all over camp but they live under the house”.  The next morning he was vigorous in his sweeping.

Waking in the night the bamboo shutters were vibrating in the wind which sucked and heaved, blowing rain against the glass.