Thursday, March 28, 2013

Elephant Week

 Last week was amazing. I witnessed so many things. Most (but not all) involved elephants.   

Our guide for the week was an expert on elephants. I like to believe that he’s one of the elephant whisperers, although he doesn’t whisper to the elephants. He talks to them in booming voice. And he knows where to find them. Somehow on Monday he guided us to an entire herd of elephants that was marching toward one of the water holes. He parked the Land Rover right in the path of the herd, and they marched right by us. He did it again. And again. They were on a mission, and they didn't really care that we were there. Some completely ignored us, some glanced at us, some gave us a warning flair of their huge ears. They just kept marching and we kept clicking our cameras. It was an extraordinary experience. 

I had never seen elephants at a waterhole before, so this was another first for me. The elephants all stood at the edge of the water and sucked in water with their trunks. Then they tucked their trunks into their mouths and spurted water. Different elephants had different styles. Some were messy with water gushing all over; some were very elegant and didn't waste a drop of water. I noticed some youngsters were helping the littlest calves, guiding them to the water. The herd is extremely close. They all help each other and protect the little ones. It occurred to me that many human families could take a lesson or two from this herd.

On Tuesday evening, we found the herd again. This time, we witnessed many fights among the male elephants. From what I learned, the males fight to practice, to assert their power, to establish their position in the herd or simply to have fun. It's hard to explain how huge these animals are. The fights almost seem to be in slow motion because the combatants are so big. I could literally hear their tusks clashing with each other so you know the fight was intense and loud. Our guide had to move the Land Rover out of the way a few times to be sure we wouldn't get squashed by nearby elephant fights.

On Wednesday evening, our elephant whisperer tried his hardest to track down the herd once again, but the herd outsmarted us, walking into thicker bushes and trees. We tried to follow them, which was pretty rough on the tires of the Land Rover. Eventually, one of the tires got poked in the wrong place by a pointy branch. We had a flat tire right in the middle of the wild!  We knew there were elephants nearby in the thick bushes because the hearing people in the vehicle could hear them moving around. We just couldn’t see the elephants. That was pretty nerve-racking for me since I couldn’t really hear the elephants but I knew they were there!!! Fortunately, we managed to change tire before it got too dark.  Once again, the elephants were much less interested in us than we were in them and they gave us no trouble.  

Thursday evening, we found the male elephants in a more accessible area. Let me tell you, this was probably one of the best drives I have ever had because we had front row seats for a very dramatic elephant fight. A youngster named Sawubona is one of my favorite elephants. He is different from the other elephants because he is very curious about the Land Rover. On Thursday, I was sitting in the passenger seat beside the driver.  Sawubona was walking on my side of the vehicle. He was walking closer and closer so that he could almost touch the Land Rover with the end of his stretched trunk. He even sniffed me out and I really wondered if he was going to try and touch me or grab me! I had never seen a wild elephant in an extreme close-up, and it was awe-inspiring.

Sawubona also loves to to pick fights with other bigger males. On Thursday, he was having a bad day. He was trying so hard to win a fight against any of the big males. He fought with two of the larger males and eventually admitted defeat by falling to the ground in frustration. We watched all of this from what was literally the best seat in the world. Then Sawubona did something that shocked all of us. I guess he figured that if he couldn't beat one of the elephants, he would take on the Land Rover. Suddenly, he was on his feet and charging straight at us!   Luckily our elephant whisperer started the engine. The noise scared Sawubona, and our guide moved the vehicle forward a bit to show him that we were ready to fight. Of course, we were in an open vehicle, so we were pretty vulnerable, but Sawubona didn’t know that. He stopped and walked away from us.  

All of these elephant encounters made this a pretty amazing week but there was more to come. Friday early morning, I finally got to see a leopard! Leopards are in one of the most elusive animals in Thanda. They don't like attention, and they are extremely good at camouflage. After seven weeks of being here, I was so happy to finally see a beautiful big cat with its amazingly clean coat and its rosette spots. We first caught sight of the leopard walking down the road. As soon as it heard the engine of the Land Rover, it moved quickly went into the thick bushes and crouched down low. Luckily our guide was able to see where it went. He parked right beside the bushes and turned off the engine.

Leopards blend in so well with the landscape that we couldn't see him even though we knew he was there. We had to wait patiently for the leopard to make a movement so we could find him. After a while, our guide decided to move off the road and closer the bushes. Suddenly, I saw the leopard moving off to another area of bush. We waited and waited. I was in the back of the Land Rover, so I was keeping a very keen eye out to make sure we didn’t miss him crossing the road behind us. Sure enough, the leopard tried to slip across the road and into the bushes on the other side. I told the guide where he was going and kept an eye on the leopard while the guide backed up so we could see him more clearly. It was almost impossible to get a good photo of him because he was moving and hiding in the thick bushes. It made me realizes that we probably pass leopards all the time and don't see them because they are so good at hiding or simply laying low in the tall grass. Seeing a leopard is always an incredible experience, even if you get nothing more than a glimpse. All together in my life, I've seen leopards three times and it is always a thrill.  

I could go on and on about last week. We got lucky with a rare sighting of two honey badgers. I held a blind snake. I had another reunion with a familiar face from my first trip. I always feel that every day at Thanda is an adventure, but last week was over the top. I've said it before, but I'll say it again. This is an amazing place, and I am so grateful to be here!!!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dream: Big Cats

I found out that my last blog post upset a few of my family members and friends. So sorry! Maybe I should have explained that it was a dream at the beginning of the post. I was trying to make the blog exciting but maybe that was a little too exciting. So let me make it clear right now. This is another dream. I'm writing it down because it was just as vivid as the dream about the crocodile. I don't dream this way when I'm at home and I'm trying to figure out what it means.    

This time the animal in the dream is a big cat--not a leopard, cheetah or lion. This cat wasn't like anything I have actually seen but it was big. At the beginning of the dream, I was with a group of volunteers and staff members. We were having a little party outside by the pool, just standing around and talking about life as we so often do. Suddenly I noticed two big cats running on the far side of the pool. They disappeared behind a wall of the lodge. Nobody else saw the cats, so I quickly grabbed one of our guides and pointed out where the big cats were hiding. He didn’t see them at first. But then they moved out from behind the wall  and closer to a tree. The guide saw them this time and announced to everybody that we had to move inside slowly and quietly.

We all went upstairs in the lodge, thinking we would be safe on the second floor. But the cats followed us. Everybody slowly backed up and spread out. I was standing beside the railing of the stairs when one of the cats took an interest in me. He slowly walked up to me. I was standing totally still, terrified but also amazed by being so close to this beautiful animal. I hoped that if I stood still enough, he wouldn’t think I was a living thing. He sniffed me as he walked in a circle close enough so I could feel his tail brushing against my legs. When the cat was behind me, I could see everyone else watching the two of us and I realized that two of the guides were walking slowly to another room, probably to get something to defend us from the cat.   

Then I felt sharp pain in my right arm. For some reason, I didn’t move or scream in pain. One of the cats had bitten me on my arm and wouldn't let go. A staff member grabbed the cat's neck, pulled him off my arm and  threw the cat away from me. I was staring at my arm. There was a large bite mark and it was starting to bleed. Another staff member grabbed me and moved me away from the cats. “I need to sit down," I said. "I think I’m going to pass out.” I guess I was in shock. Fortunately, they helped me get to the wall and I sat down on the floor with my back against the wall. 

That's when the other cat decided to come after me. Suddenly the shock wore off and adrenalin kicked in. I jumped up off the floor and faced the cat. The second cat sniffed me. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the two guides who had gone to get snatchers, long sticks with loops on the end that let them grab the cats by their necks. They couldn’t get in position to get the cat by me and, just as he was about to open his mouth to take a bite, I grabbed the back of his neck. By now, my arm was bleeding like crazy from the first bite. The smell of blood was making the second cat wild and he was trying to bite me anywhere he could. It took all my strength to hold onto the back of his neck and keep his teeth away from me. “Somebody get him!” I shouted.

Finally one of the guides got the snatcher around the cat's neck. He led the cat outside where one of the anti-poaching units was preparing a dart to put him out. The first cat was still walking around and the other guide was trying to corner him to catch him with the snatcher. But the first cat was smarter than the second cat. I knew he was eyeing me as I started to make my way to out of the room to take care of my arm. Suddenly, I heard everybody yelling. I looked back and saw the cat in the air coming straight at me. As he knocked me to the floor, I grabbed his mouth just like I did with the crocodile in the other dream. I have no idea how but I was struggling to keep his mouth and sharp teeth away from me. Just as I thought my strength would fail me, the guide snatched him and led him away. 

I woke from this dream looking for the bite mark on my arms. I couldn’t believe that I had another dream that felt so real.  Every detail was sharp in my memory. I’m still not sure what these dreams mean. When I described the new dream to one of the staff, she suggested maybe I am struggling or fighting with something in life that takes the form of these animals in my dreams. I thought that was an interesting theory since in both dreams, I was fighting to survive. On the other hand, I can't figure out what I am fighting in real life.

There’s one thing I do know. Africa is a very spiritual place. People here believe that dreams have meaning. So, dear readers, I have two questions for you. What do these dreams mean to you? And which blog post did you like reading better?   

Saturday, March 16, 2013


So I have this story that will probably blow your mind away. You know it ends well because I’m writing this, so please just hold your questions, comments, exclamations, or freak-outs until you’ve read the whole thing.

Two staff members, seven other volunteers and I decided to visit a wetland park full of crocodiles. We were supposed to meet our guides with their boats at a dock so we were driving in a Land Rover, trying to find the dock. We couldn’t seem to find it and the person driving the vehicle was getting frustrated because we were going to be late so she started speeding a little bit. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, the staff member sitting in the passenger seat, pointed at something in front of her and shouted, “There it is. STOP!” The driver tried to slow down, but there wasn’t enough time so she slammed down the brakes.

The Land Rover stopped before driving into the water, but I didn’t. I went flying out of the vehicle and landed in the river. The water was pretty cold. I went under and then came up as quickly as I could to get some air. I brushed the water grass off my face and rubbed the water out of my eyes. Then I looked back at the Land Rover. Everybody was yelling and pointing at something to my left. My hearing aids weren’t working because of the water, so I couldn’t make out what they were yelling or saying. I looked over to my left and realized why they were so upset. A crocodile was swimming straight for me.

I knew if I turned toward shore, I wouldn’t get out of the water in time and the crocodile would snatch me from behind. I also knew that I wouldn’t go down without fighting. In a flash, I realized that I wasn’t done living my life. The crocodile disappeared underwater. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the people on shore yelling and waving their arms like crazy, trying to get me to come out of the water. Instead I dove underwater to face the crocodile. The water was muddy, but I could see a dark figure coming straight for me. I held my breath and waited for him to get closer.

When the crocodile was about two feet away, he opened his huge jaws. His intentions were clear. Somehow I grabbed his nose and lower jaw to keep his mouth away from me. His powerful jaws were able to snap even though I was still holding on to him. I don’t know how, but I knew I had to keep my fingers away from his teeth. We thrashed around until I felt the river bottom under my feet. I’m not sure where I got the strength—maybe the crocodile was getting tired—but somehow I threw the crocodile’s mouth in the other direction so I could scramble out to dry land. I looked back and saw the crocodile swimming away from me.

I was soaking wet, but there wasn’t a single scratch on me. Everybody in the Land Rover was staring at me, dumb-founded and near tears. Nobody said anything, so I just laughed and said, “I’m okay, folks.” After a moment or two, one staff member broke the silence, “I thought you were dead.” “Yea, me too,” another person said quietly. Then suddenly everyone was talking at once. Our guides were right there so they saw the whole thing. One of the guides came up to me and said, “You are one lucky bitch, you could’ve been croc food in there.” He laughed and patted me on my shoulder. All I could do was laugh about it and then we went on the boat drive to learn all about crocodiles.

After the boat drive, the guides wanted me to come back to the office with them and tell the rest of their team about what happened in the water. I tried my best to tell the story though it was difficult to explain how the hell I had survived without any knowledge or experience with crocodiles. All I could say was that it must have been some kind of survival instinct. I had a clear memory of an inner voice telling me not to touch the teeth when I grabbed the mouth so I wouldn’t lose any fingers or limbs. All the guides were acting like my experiences was some kind of a miracle and I was a crocodile whisperer or something.

At the end of the day, the staff decided we should go out for drinks since everyone had been really scared when I was in the water. All evening, I kept thinking, “Whoa, I could’ve died back there! How did I escape from that crocodile? No way I’m telling my family about this!” Everyone told their own version of the story. “I cannot believe how far you went flying out of the vehicle into the water!” “That crocodile must have been so pissed that you got away!” “You could’ve died!” It was getting harder for me to remember what really happened, but as the evening faded, I felt relief that the day was over—and that I had survived it.

The next morning, I woke up feeling even more confused about what had happened. At breakfast, I sat with the staff member and some of the volunteers. They were acting like it was any other day. Finally, I had to ask: “Did we visit a wetland park yesterday?”

They all looked at me like I had lost my mind. Finally someone said, “Noooo,” really slowly, like they were trying to figure out what I was talking about.

I asked again “Are you sure we didn’t go anywhere near water or crocodiles?”

They were very sure. “No, we didn’t leave the game preserve yesterday.”

“So I never really fell in the water and had to fight off a crocodile?”


That’s when I realized…it must have been a dream, the most vivid dream I’ve ever had.

When I told everybody about my dream, they all thought it was crazy that I had remembered so many details. For me, the crazy part was that it felt so real.

Later on, somebody told me that, when a crocodile appears in a dream, it’s a sign of healing. That’s interesting, considering that, in my dream, the crocodile was trying to eat me!

I’m not sure why I had this dream or what the heck it means. All I know is that being in Africa is changing me. My experiences here are seeping into my dreams. Yes, there are dangers, but in my dreams at least, I know what I need to do it survive!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


I have been in Africa for more than a month. That’s longer than my first trip last year, and it seemed like a good time to reflect on what I’ve experienced in the past weeks and what I hope for in the weeks to come. That’s why I decided to stay in at Thanda last weekend. It’s always tempting to go back to Rocktail Bay or even to a hotel for a night of unlimited water and Wifi, but I wanted to get the experience of being completely alone at the lodge. Actually, I wasn’t completely alone. Some staff members work on the weekend—housekeepers, kitchen helpers, and a security team—but all the other volunteers were away so I pretty much had the place to myself. It was a very windy, stormy day with occasional sprinkles from the sky. Some people might be disappointed in that kind of day, but I love it when it’s really windy. The wind made me remember one of my last nights in the US when I stood outside my parents’ house, looking up at a clear sky full of stars and feeling the wind on my face. I used my windy day to recharge for another 7 weeks of adventures in South Africa. I’ve picked up a little yoga, so I did that for a while. And then I did some Tai Chi that I learned from my mother who’s on her way becoming a Tai Chi instructor. Both of those activities make you think about breathing and the wind made it feel like the world was breathing with me. All day it was windy and cloudy, and I loved every single minute of it. Even without company, I didn’t feel lonely. Actually, I should say that I didn’t have human company. This is a nature preserve so I had a number of visitors during the day—a pair of warthogs, some impalas, a stick insect, frogs and toads, and plenty of praying mantises.

For me, it was a great day of peace and quiet. Maybe it wouldn’t be so quiet for hearing people because I’m pretty sure there were frogs croaking, crickets chirping and maybe even lions roaring in the distance. I haven’t exactly been able to hear the sounds made by wildlife, but that doesn’t really matter to me. I am getting better at understanding what is communicated through action—body language, facial expression, even eye contact. On game drives or even in camp, I’ve had so many experiences where I’ve made eye contact with an animal. Once, one of our guides parked the Land-Rover right in the middle of a herd of buffalo. Some buffalo completely ignored us knowing we weren’t danger. Some started at us wondering what the heck were we doing. Some accepted us and strolled past as if having a Land-Rover in their midst was perfectly normal. One buffalo was right beside the Land-Rover. I was in the passenger seat which is a lot closer to the ground than the rest of the seats in the back. This buffalo locked eyes with me and I felt like I was under some kind of a spell. It almost seemed as if he was trying to communicate with me, warning me not to hit any of his friends and family members with the Land-Rover.

 During this first month in Thanda, I have made eye contact with elephants, lions, zebras, and even warthogs, and I always come away feeling deeply connected to the animal. I don’t know what is it about this place, but it makes me feel closer to the wildlife, not just in body but in spirit. I think this love for animals has always been inside me. I remember that, when I was a kid, I never truly enjoyed going to the zoo. I always felt bad for the animals because they were confined in small areas and dependent on humans for food. I don’t ever remember making eye contact with an animal in the zoo. Maybe here animals look you in the eye because they are living on their own terms. Yes, they need people to protect their habitat, but within that habitat, they have grace and dignity. When an animal locks eyes with me, I realize that it has every right to live free from human interference and violence. 

Even after a weekend on my own, it’s hard to summarize the experiences and feelings I’ve had during these first weeks at Thanda. I just know that I deeply love being here, and I can’t wait to see what the coming weeks will bring.

Monday, March 4, 2013

My Duties at Thanda Part 3

In my last two posts about my duties at Thanda, I wrote about the photography and conservation work that volunteers do at Thanda. We spend most of our time on those duties, but we also get to be part of the community outreach. African Impact is involved in many educational projects, and volunteers help out in those programs too.

Some days we visit the local crèches and help out with the lesson plans. The kids at the crèches are from newborn to 4 years. It is so much fun being around them. The lesson plans help them prepare for school. We help them learn English words including ABC’s, days of the week, names of animals and so on. We have fun with them during play time. They love hugs and cuddles and even blowing bubbles!

Volunteers also work with two schools in the local rural communities around Thanda. The first school is Mafa School about 25 minutes away from the game reserve. From this school we collect the sixth graders and drive them to our education centre at Ulwazi. With volunteer help, the children learn about the special wildlife on Thanda and the importance of conservation. These outings are rounded off by lunch and a drive home often accompanied by singing.

The second school is Mdletshe, where our work is also supported by the Happy Africa Foundation. The school has three classrooms and, depending on the number of volunteers, we prepare lessons for one or two groups. These are elementary age kids, so they love crafts and coloring.

Last but not least, volunteers are expected to take care of small duties at the lodge. One week I was equipment manager, so I had to make sure all equipment was accounted for and nothing went missing or get lost on our expeditions. Another week, I was the environmentalist, so I had to make sure water was properly recycled and the electricity was not being overused. I also had to see to it that the lodge was organized and clean – no trash or dirty dishes! I’m looking forward to other assignments such as gardener for watering the garden and reporter for posting news on our Facebook page.

Since I came here as a photographer, I try to take photographs of everything that happens – animals, conservation work, community projects, and people. You never really know what kind of photography the Thanda team will need as they try to tell the story of all the important work that’s going on here. They may want to spotlight a particular project or praise the accomplishments of a particular volunteer. For me, photography ties everything together.

So now you know what it means to be a volunteer at Thanda. Every day is different. Every day is full. Every day seems meaningful.