Posted by: Kim Fuqua | September 1, 2011

It’s Raining Again (I’ll be rested when it’s over)

It’s pouring down with rain. I remember this rain. It’s a Prepare The Ark! kind of rain, beating against the roof and slooshing under car tires outside. My favorite iPhone app, Accuweather, is quite convincing that it will soon be over, but not tomorrow. Tomorrow there is more to come, and as long as I’m still adjusting to daylight on the other side of the world, it’s okay to get it out of the way. Of all things, I’ve had a nostalgic pull to visit Cavendish Square Mall, Cape Town’s “upmarket” mall + 10 Theater Cinema, where I spent a lot of time two years ago, grocery shopping, people watching, discovering the subtleties of black licorice, and…watching movies.

Intense jet lag + biblical rain = good movie evening!

Planet of the Apes or Captain America in 3D? Hmm, let’s see…

During the day, I will work. Writing and researching. Saturday the sun is coming out. Accuweather says so. I’ll stay in Cape Town until next week, then drive to Namaqualand where the epic, world-famous flowers are the best in years. Beatrix (a sweet goat) just had 3 babies at the farm, bringing the new baby goat total to 8, I believe. It’s whale season, in Namaqualand and in the Western Cape (Hermanus). I have books and exchange student paperwork to bring Lisa, Malinda and Bob. I have the second draft of my novel to begin detailing. I have sites to visit and re-visit. I have South African sportswear to procure.

I thought I might go to dinner at one of the top 100 restaurants in the world (according to the who’s who of restaurant lists), you know, to broaden my horizons:

But unless I can convince some of my friends to shell out the dough, and probably harder, the time, for a 6 or 9-course meal (min: 4 hours), it ain’t gonna happen. And I’m not sitting there by myself. Even reviewers bring friends.

There is much to do in the next three weeks besides missing my husband, step-son, dog, and three cats more intensely than usual, as if some terrible tragedy will happen to them in the next 26 days.

And anyway, considering the ease at which I can imagine “the worst,” maybe I see too many movies.

Time to focus and start writing, which is actually really fun.

Posted by: Kim Fuqua | August 31, 2011

The Leaving is the Hardest Part

In South Africa again. Cape Town. Slept 3 hours and woke, my brain grateful for the nap and wondering why it’s still so dark outside. The 9 hour difference will take a week to adjust to. It’s good to be a place with wi-fi for the 4am wake-ups.

I didn’t want to leave, this time harder than last time, which was harder than the time before, which was much harder than the time before that. But I swallowed the fear and separation sadness and got on the airplane. More than day later (as a crow flies through time) I have arrived, feeling, more viscerally than usual, every one of the 10,200 miles between myself and home. This picture Alex sent tonight of Henri in my office says it all.

Henri today in my office, where he usually sits while I'm working.

I’m not that friendly when I fly. I don’t introduce myself to my row companions and ask them what brings them to this particular seat, the only thing between me and the lavatories. Eventually, though, more often than not, conversations break the seal that protective travelers share, and I’m almost always glad for it.

On the flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town my row mate (Barry) asked why I was in South Africa, then told me that he had left Nigeria under pressure 8 years ago. He is an activist for the rights of the local people and against the extreme environmental damage related to oil exploration in the Niger Delta. The leader of the non-violent movement, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was from his village and was hanged in 1995. Barry has lived in Cape Town the last 8 years and runs an organization to educate other ex-patriated Nigerians on the movement.

Saro-Wiwa’s story is pretty incredible. What courage it takes to face these issues, these governments.

My work seems small in these moments.

The driver who picked me up at the airport (Chris) grew up in Cape Town. A black (“Coloured”) Afrikaner, he was born in District 6 and lived there as a child until the SA government forcibly evicted all non-whites and bulldozed their neighborhood. “We were lucky,” he said, because his family was able to move into another house across the bridge. He could still play in District 6, watching without fully understanding what he was seeing around him. Most people who were forced from District 6 ended up at housing projects in the Cape Flats, some call “apartheid’s dumping ground.” There were too many people and too much chaos, and the shantytowns were formed virtually overnight. Now the Flats is a huge expanse of area southeast of central Cape Town and is where the townships (shantytowns) Khayelitsha and Gugulethu are located, as well as a large proportion of Cape Town residents.

I asked him if he’d seen “District 9.” He had. He said he liked it, despite the special effects, but not everyone from the District did.

I loved that movie. Made me cry.

It has been raining noisily most of the night, but it is quiet outside my window now. Tomorrow work begins. I’d better get back to sleep.

Phil and Liz make me feel at home.

Posted by: Kim Fuqua | February 25, 2011

The Escaped Lions: Caught

The night after I left Makalali, they caught the lions. So it goes.

My team (without me!) and the escaped lions. They were darted and are only sleeping.

They have been put in a large containment area at Makalali, and will be exchanged with another set of lions from another conservation reserve. New lions means new genes to the Makalali gene pool and a fresh start on setting boundaries and deterring escapes.

The wildebeests and zebras next door can breathe a sigh of relief–until someone at the hunting lodge decides he is ready for that particular trophy on his wall.

Ah me.

Posted by: Kim Fuqua | February 24, 2011

Out of Africa

I’ve been traveling now for about 26 hours. Nearly home.

The last two days in Pretoria were perfect: caught up on sleep and debriefed on my experience in the bush with Rudi, who is the original inspiration for my story idea. There were some things I had in mind for setting and character development that I needed to sort out with him. Some inconsistencies between what I’d envisioned and what I experienced at Enkosini and Makalali.

My story will be fiction; his stories are very real.

Professor Rudi van Aarde, Elephant Scientist

After describing my animal “reserve” bush experience, he invited me on a “real” research trip to Botswana in September. There are few wide open places left in South Africa for animals to roam–virtually none for elephants. But in Botswana, the elephants run free for hundreds of kilometers. He encouraged me to see the real thing for myself.


I’m not willing to wait that long to write this novel, and the setting is too important to the story, but perhaps my novel will require a sequel. The setting for this book will be in the bush of South Africa.

Apparently there is snow on the ground in Seattle now. I’m still wearing my Chaco sandals, strapped across my tanned-lined feet. Twenty-nine hours of travel, ten time zones, and a hemisphere, and I’m back to winter again.

I miss South Africa already. Each time I leave a place–Cape Town, Namaqualand, Lydenburg, Hoedspruit, Pretoria–I feel like I’ve left some small part of myself behind, and taken something new along home with me in its place.

South Africa is a part of me now. I will be back.

Posted by: Kim Fuqua | February 22, 2011

Bush Dreams

Throughout my final nights in the bush I had Salvador Dali dreams.

One fo the baby eles at Makalali

Makalali is a surreal place, when you come from Seattle, and my dreams began to growl and float and melt animals and people together. Sometimes things would get too scary and I’d wake and listen to the African night through the squeak of the ceiling fan. The frogs, crickets, night jars, and sometimes hyenas. The dreams were so weird and intense, I started to wonder if one of my team mates was slipping me her malaria pills. Maybe the heat of our room each night was finally winning, coming through my ears and frying my brain a little. Maybe my experiences had reached a threshold and were spilling over. Maybe this is how one becomes a permanent part of the lowveld–the brain circuitry changes frequency in the night.

Hyenas are gorgeous and mysterious creatures, with a cool call.We never found Doyle again. The decomposing animal we came across that looked like lion turned out to be a hyena. The image of that bloody spine will live behind my eyes for a while. It could have been Doyle. Claudia thinks the bits we found were too far from where he would have been, but others aren’t as sure.

As of yesterday, we also hadn’t yet re-found the lions. If they are caught in the sable farm two properties over, they will be shot and Makalali will pay.

Elephants really do trumpet--and it's loud.

One morning we left at 4:45am in the truck to look for them. It was still dark, but the horizon was beginning to glow with morning. We were only ten minutes from camp when we came around a corner and nearly ran into a large bull elephant standing in the road. I could just see the outline of him as he flared his ears and trumpeted loudly, then rushed our truck. Andrews (our ranger), turned off the engine and the headlights. The elephant backed up a little, then rushed forward again, around to my side of the truck. He trumpeted again, his trunk high, and began to mock(?)charge toward my side of the rear, when Andrews started up the truck and sped off. Before we disappeared around the corner, I could see the silhouette of his ears flared and his massive legs moving unbelievably quickly toward us.

One of the first rules of the bush is NEVER RUN. Especially with elephants.

That is, unless they mean business, then get the hell out of there.

It was incredible.

Other experiences that have colored my REM sleep for sure:

I definitely have a soft spot for these babies.

– The baby wildebeest was killed by the predators as predicted, and the remains of the carcass were hung from a tree to try to bring in the lions. I didn’t see it hanging there, but others in my truck did. It was enough for me to know it was there. I find it ironic that for all of our “non-intervention” with respect to the baby wildebeest, we’ve so far killed 4 impala to lure the loose lions in as bait. One of the dead impala — shot cleanly through the heart with one bullet — was going to be wasted, so I helped move his body to another site where the hyenas would find it so we could record some research photos on the hyena packs in the area. I’m sure those impalas would love to chat about our non-intervention methods. Three wildebeest and a zebra have been eaten so far by the escaped lions.

– On our last drive, two different times I spotted other lions (in Makalali’s reserve). The second time, a young male and female were hiding in the grass and I somehow saw them and stopped our truck. When they saw us, they emerged from under the tree and laid down in front of us in the open. So beautiful.

The honey badger - one of the fiercest animals in the bush (this one is at a rehab park, in a pen).

– We went to Maholoholo rehab center for animals and it was awful. Their pitch is that the animals are “ambassadors” for animal conservation (where else can you get up close to a honey badger?), but some of their facilities aren’t much better than 1970s zoo conditions. It hurt my heart. The honey badgers were anxious, and ran around and around in circles, looking for ways out. The guide said, “he’s just trying to get attention from all the people,” but who does he thing he’s fooling? My friend Kate, the vet, was upset by the honey badger’s behavior as well. Sigh.  There are several animals that will never be released (“ambassadors!”) and would otherwise be dead. I’m trying to decide if allowing humans to get close to them in this way, keeping them in pens that are unnaturally small for wild animals, is worth the possibility of more emotional connection to humans and therefore conservation efforts. Does the end justify the means?

This leopard would be killed by farmers if it weren't in this cage.

– I saw some really cool bugs – mostly the small, brightly-colored or spiney beetle kind. The tiny lady bug kind. The kite spider is pretty cool too. I’m pretty sure they all have magical powers.

These babies are so cute--they run with their tails straight up.

– The animals on the reserve are so happy and free, even if they can’t roam beyond the 26 hectars (except the leopards, who can go wherever they want). If they live happily and die quickly and painlessly, I have no problem eating them. Bethuel joked one day, “Those warthogs, they may be ugly, but they sure are tasty!”  I hate to admit it, but I will: I’d eat a male warthog if it lived and died this way. (The females are always taking care of their babies. they are very good moms.)

– The elephants are fantastic, of course, but I have to say I’m somewhat partial to the rhinos now. And the leopards. And the Painted Dogs, who are not found on any SA reserve except Kruger National Park, and they are almost completely extinct. They are smart and amazing and misunderstood.

– Hyenas are beautiful, and also misunderstood. Although they will eat your face off if you camp outside. No joke. The most deaths a year in the bush happen because people — usually locals — sleeping outside get their faces eaten off.

One of these bit my leg at the rehab park and drew a good bit of blood. Wouldn't want to be hurt in the bush with a flock of these nearby.

So many others.

I’m in Pretoria now, and will be going to lunch soon with Rudi, the professor and elephant scientist I met in Cape Town 20 months ago–the original inspiration for my novel. We’ll have lunch, I’ll ask him a lot of questions about his work in the field, and then he’ll take me to U. of Pretoria where I’ll sit in on a lecture with his grad students. A perfect end cap to my research trip.

I asked our ranger Andrews to give me his best GQ pose. He did a pretty good job of it.

Posted by: Kim Fuqua | February 15, 2011

Found: The Big Boys

The Big big boy and his lady are mating. Every 30 minutes for...ages. They are exhausted.

These aren’t the lions that went missing (and still haven’t been found), but these big bad boys may be the reason they ran off in the first place. Besides the free smorgasbord, that is. These adult male lions and their females are in a coalition, which means they hang out together when they are not with their ladies, and they don’t mind that their territories are very close together. When I get home and can post video, I have some incredible territorial lion calling to share. Any other animal around for miles surely heard it too.

This female was almost their lunch. We're sure of it.

What they DO mind, however, are other male lions spending time in their territory. The game warden believes the young males that are on the run may be running from the two big males who have (reportedly) been beating them up and chasing them off.

This morning we drove into a thick, putrid, stench. We were all immediately taken by its foul texture. Our ranger, Andrews, stopped and got out. In a grassy area next to the road, there was the backbone — as in, a huge portion of the spine — of an animal. The top part of a skull. Feathers from the vultures who had feasted. We looked down, under the tires of our vehicle. There were large tufts of a tan and black fur, pulled out from the roots, in clumps and piles. Then Andrews found a full clump of tan-to-black hairs, about 5 or 6 inches long. Sure looked like lion fur to me. The rangers weren’t sure.

We collected any bits of animal we could find and put them in a garbage bag. They stank from the bottom of the truck and we headed back to camp. It started to rain hard. I was soaked to the skin when we rolled back into camp.

Despite appearances, he was not angry. He was smelling his lady's pheromones in the grass.

It’s Tuesday of the last week. All work here effectively ends after the morning drive Saturday, so I’m in the home stretch. It’s been amazing, and the civilization of Pretoria on Monday will be most welcome, but I will miss the friends I’ve made here and the extraordinary access to the bush and these wonderful creatures

Posted by: Kim Fuqua | February 13, 2011

Sunday in ZA: Rest like a Rhino

Yesterday, we tracked a rhino and her calf for about an hour on foot, and then we found them. She was so beautiful!

We tracked her on foot -- and kept our distance when we found her.

We followed at tracks, grass paths, dung, and listened to the sound of the ox peckers calling out their warnings from her back. So when we came around a corner and there she was, about 30 yards away, it was exhilarating. While the rest of our group stood behind a bush, I stood in view to take pictures. She watched me the whole time. I’m slayed.

Bethuel teaches us to track the rhino.

Today, Tammy (a friend from Seattle), Roz (a cool woman from the UK) and I, rented a car and did some driving around the area. This country is beautiful, and it was nice to have a break from the schedule and personalities of Makalali. Not much was open on this fine Sunday, but we saw some great vistas, bought some SA curious, watched really cute kids perform traditional dance while we ate lunch, and laughed a lot.

Sight-seeing in Lompopo

Take 2!

I even made dinner for us all (and our lovely ranger, Andrews) tonight. Fried chicken, with sauteed mushrooms and pasta with olive oil and butter. Along with Tammy’s South African Sauvignon Blanc, it all turned out pretty well, for a night in the bush.

I leave for home in ten days. Crunch time. Whatever I haven’t seen, learned, asked or experienced up until now, I still have time.

The young rhino walked over, sank to the ground and watched us.

Posted by: Kim Fuqua | February 12, 2011

The Ethics of Intervention

Yesterday’s wildebeest experience has me thinking a lot today about the reality of nature and survival, and humane practices in animal management. What happened yesterday to the baby wildebeest was wrong.

...But intervene to prevent suffering when humans played a part. It's the right thing to do.

It would be one thing if this were truly the wild, or even if it happened on a reserve where the populations are self-managing within the relatively natural environment. I’ve been told, “Death comes with nature,” that it is the stark reality of the “food chain,” and — perhaps most tone-deafly, considering this particular situation — “the lions need to learn to hunt.” (If you ask me, it seems they pretty much have it down.) I’ve been told that unless the injury to an animal is man-made (ie, Doyle), they won’t intervene. Nature, they say, will take its course.

But let’s be real here. This isn’t exactly the wild, and humans absolutely were involved in what happened to that mama and baby wildebeest yesterday.

– The lions have escaped to the neighbor’s reserve, which is a hunting reserve. The hunting reserve has no other predators, except some hyena. Just a whole boat load of pretty antelope with curly horns and zebra for the brave hunters to “hunt.”  (If someone will explain to me what goes into “hunting” a zebra I’d like to know. No, these fantastic humans don’t even eat the meat.)  These animals don’t even know to be afraid of the lions until it is way past too late.

– They escaped from a fenced area on a conservation reserve next door — for the third time — where they are managed fairly closely, and come into contact with humans on a regular basis.

– Last time this happened, humans shot an impala and strung it from a tree, like cotton candy at the state fair. They devoured it while looking at the humans watching them. This was after they’d already eaten a wildebeest from next door.

There are humans involved in the management (and dispatch–in the case of the game reserve) of these animals every single day. So why then, when we see potential suffering and cruelty that came in no small part because we set up the environments for it to happen, aren’t we responsible for taking a humane action?

We should have captured the baby wildebeest and either have taken it back to his herd to attempt a re-integration, or have just shot him right there. That would have been the humane thing to do.

Kate, another volunteer here who is also a veterinarian, was the only other person in the truck to feel as strongly about this as I do. One ranger blithely defended today, “This is Africa!” to which Kate responded that this part of Africa is something different. The whole point of all of this is that there are different standards and motivations.

Everyone else was apparently resigned to the idea that the baby was going to get what he got, because that is just how it works. “Sigh. Shame. He isn’t long for this world…”

I call BS. We had the power to interfere to save unnecessary suffering that we had some part in creating. Instead, that baby is scared to death, and will wander around for days, becoming dehydrated because it can still only drink milk, being stalked by predators, before it is chased down and disemboweled.

But at least the lions got (more) practice fishing from a barrel.

We made the wrong choice.

Posted by: Kim Fuqua | February 11, 2011

The Heartbreak of the Wild

The lions have escaped again. And nature is cruel.

It was discovered that two males had made it through the fence and onto the neighboring landowner’s property, thanks to the wildebeest killed for their breakfast. The neighbor called early this morning to say we had better come and get our lions before he shoots them. The Makalali game warden and others spent much of the day looking for them, and our team spent another four hours.

The sun went down, and in darkness and a spotlight we drove the perimeter of the property. A ranger made wounded animal calls that were chillingly realistic, but no lions came. We drove, shining the spotlight into the bush, looking for the eyes shining back.

Along a clearing, we saw a pair of eyes. It wasn’t a lion, it was a baby wildebeest, walking alone. The herd was long gone, having run to safety during the attack, leaving this baby behind looking for his mother. The remains of her were laying in the grass not too far away.

He walked all alone in the moonlight. We drove, and I gulped back the welling up I was feeling. The little thing looked so sad and scared–and utterly vulnerable. I wanted to adopt him, plead for his life, jump out of the truck and lasso him to safety.

Ahead about 100 yards we came across a hyena, moving in the direction of the clearing. The lions were still somewhere close by. The rangers had strung up another sacrificial impala from a tree. With the smell of so much fresh flesh, and a baby wildebeest walking alone, there would be more hyenas soon. Too soon.

Of course I asked our rangers what could be done, and was told there was nothing we could do for the baby. Maybe he’ll get lucky and find his herd before the hyenas or lions find him.

I can hardly think about it.

I just happened to take this picture of other wildebeests earlier today. The baby was younger than this one.



Posted by: Kim Fuqua | February 8, 2011

Makalali: You don’t have to eat that

Who knows the difference between dung, scat and feces?

Yes, there is a difference.

Accidental elephant crossing--and they weren't happy about it

Don’t worry, I didn’t know either. But don’t go thinking this isn’t important information. When you’re in the bush, details like this… Okay, they don’t matter in the bush at all either, but if you’re talking about the bush, you’d better have it straight, or go ahead right now and just paint NEWBIE across your forehead with sugar water. The mosquitoes will do the rest. Maybe you’ll even attract a dung beetle your way. Those creatures are cool.

Dung = herbivore. (but of course)

Feces = omnivore. (think: primates)

Scat = (eh hem, process of elimination-no pun) carnivore!

Now go break out that Trivial Pursuit game you bought in the 80s and give it another go.

We’ve been following a fair bit of dung/feces/scat while we’ve been here, and among the many party pleasers I’ve learned is that a) 80% of the food elephants eat is not digested, and therefore is deposited as dung that animals like baboons eat from, b) for a bit of fun in the bush, rangers have “impala poop spitting contests,” putting the grassy pellets in their mouth and giving a prize to whomever can spit theirs the farthest (they have offered us a try several times and I have declined. party pooper.), and c) one can identify hyena poo by the way it dries white, due to its high calcium content. They eat pretty much every part of the animal. Bones and all.

We found some VERY fresh rhino dung last night, but it got too dark for us to follow the rhino any further into the bush.

Today, we were looking for the cheetahs, and we found an elephant herd led by the female called “Dracula.” Not a great name, until you know her story. Her mother was rescued after watching her entire family be killed, leaving her fairly traumatized. As you must know, elephants are very intelligent, mourn their dead, and have long memories. When she came to Makalali, she was not so cool with humans, and it seems the elephants in her herd (there are four herds at Makalali) took on her bad attitude as well–including her daughter, now named Dracula. The mama died, and Dracula now leads her herd. They all have attitudes, even a very young one we met yesterday. He shoved his way past us, grabbed on to a small tree, made like he was going to pull it out of the ground, and then carried on.

This female "mock charged" our truck, then left.

Each of Dracula’s herd mates was a bit stressed out and acted erratically with us, one even mock-charging our vehicle. It was intense and my pictures reflect that. I tried to snap a few, but mostly I was watching the largest land mammal on the planet standing 10 feet away, acting stressed and a bit aggressive. Pictures will have to come later. We are advised to keep our eyes on the animal if he or she comes close to the vehicle. I consider this sound advice.

Our ranger, Barry, talked to her as she rushed the truck, saying calmly in his Irish accent, “That’s close enough now…” and then, “Easy, now, don’t come any closer.” I asked him later if they respond to someone talking to them in that tone when they approach, and he explained that many believe they remember voices, and so every time he meets an elephant, he talks to her.

The lion was chillin by himself, maybe waiting for his peeps to return from hitting the town.

Tonight we went on another drive, this time looking for rhinos. We didn’t find rhinos, but we found a lion instead. The sun had already set, and he was sitting in an open field alone. Every few minutes he would make a low rumbling sound–a call to his pride. No one came or returned the call. The other young male and female he usually travels with were nowhere around. We made sure he wasn’t injured (by moving closer so he would get up and walk), and then we headed home for dinner.

Time for bed now, hey. Our 5:30am leave time tomorrow comes very quickly.

The elephants crossing in front and back of our vehicle. Awesome.

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