TIA – This is Africa!

It’s what you hear when the water runs out, or the solar batteries don’t charge enough. And it’s also what I thought when I focused the binoculars the other day, and found myself looking into the eyes of a young cheetah. This is Africa. And it’s fascinating.

young cheetahs in Zululand
young cheetahs in Zululand

We’re helping to set up a new camp, so it’s a bit rough and ready. There is no piped water, we have a water tank, and get deliveries from the Zululand Rhino Reserve management, when they have time. Usually the tank lasts about a week, but a couple of days ago it ran out suddenly. We must have a leak, but where? The roof is dry, there’s no leak indoors. There are some outdoor taps, and we were aware of one slightly leaky pipe, and the connection to that was turned off. Finally our monitor-in-charge, Michelle, spotted a previously unnoticed water tap on the edge of the property that was open. It seems the warthogs had got in and had managed to open it, so whenever the main stop-cock to the outdoor taps was turned on, the warthogs were guzzling all our water! The emergency half tank that ZRR delivered the day before, had gone straight out, how frustrating! So now we have permanently sealed the outside stop-cock. That means that the shower bags will now have to be filled in the kitchen and carried out to hang on the tree in the sun, instead of being filled at the outdoor tap near the tree.

Zebra at Zululand Rhino Reserve

Yup, we shower from bags of water, optimistically hung out all day to warm in the winter-turning-to-spring sunshine. Generally they’re pleasantly warm. One bag will shower two frugal people, so with 3 bags, the 7 of us manage to keep reasonably clean 🙂 TIA.

Wildebeest at a waterhole

We’re hoping to get hooked up with bore-hole water piped in from the neighbouring property, but finding and fixing the old pipes is proving to be a challenge.

Nyala buck & doe
Nyala buck and doe at a waterhole

There is some cell phone service, but no internet, unless your phone can manage data. Generally it’s not worth it, and with the long days we’re working, there really isn’t time to surf the net, or FB on a slow connection on small phone. We’re not yet connected to town electricity, the paperwork is in, but TIA. So we have solar panels, which usually manage to charge batteries to give us just enough electricity to charge up the necessary volunteer cell phone and laptop, plus the batteries from the camera traps. We mostly manage to keep our personal laptops charged, and to have enough light to cook in the evenings – as long as the sun shines enough during the day, and so far it has done. In bedrooms and bathrooms, we usually use our personal headlamps. To save power, we eat by candlelight in the evening, so romantic! TIA.

This camp is being set up in an abandoned farmhouse, and the house is very spacious, with a large kitchen, dining room and potential lounge area. It’s in reasonable condition, although it’s been fixed up a bit before we arrived. Chris and I have our own bedroom, it’s fairly large, with freestanding shelving for our small amount of clothing. Our beds are new, so they’re pretty comfortable. Two women volunteers share a room, and the single man gets his own room. Our two monitors have their own rooms. There are 3 bathrooms, but with a variety of working and non-working toilets. With no tap water at the moment, we use the 5 litre bottles filled at ZRR management offices for everything: drinking, flushing, teeth-brushing and washing-up. TIA!

Each morning we’re on the truck for a 6 am start, and drive out looking for animals. Some days we focus on rhino, some days it’s cheetah, depending on what we’re looking to monitor at any given time. Every day we see a variety of antelope: herds of impala and nyala, and we often see the large stately kudu. The impala are rudely known as Maccy-D’s, because of the large M-type logo on their backsides, and the fact that they’re the favourite snack of many predators.

Impala showing off their “Big M” logo

There is also a large and colourful variety of birds around, such as the Cape glossy starling, lilac-breasted roller, hoopoe, mouse bird, go-away bird, toucans, ibis.

lilac breasted roller
Lilac breasted roller

There are also vultures, plus lots of raptors such as black-shouldered kites and snake eagles and tawny eagles. Generally at dawn and dusk we see giraffes, who bend their long necks and peer with curiosity at us, as we slowly drive by and pause for a minute.


Warthogs run around constantly, and despite their often fearsome-looking tusks, they seem a bit nervous and generally scamper off when they spot us.

Warthogs enjoying a mud bath!

One morning we came upon a group of young lions playing. It was awesome and delightful to watch them. They were aware of us, but quite relaxed. We’re hoping we took enough photos to make identikits of them.

lion (1)

A few minutes later, we saw an adult lioness who is branded and therefore identified and known. She was calmly walking down the track ahead of us. We checked each other out, then a warthog came into sight and she was off. We don’t know if she made the kill or not.


lion (2)

The next day, on a tip from the manager of the next door property, we went looking for the cheetah family, to see if we could photograph and identikit the cubs. Eventually we found them. There were 4 juveniles, sex unknown, but it’s believed that 2 may be female. They were playing and socialising in the brush about 10 metres from the side of the road. I looked through the binoculars, and locked eyes with one of the cubs. What an experience. Then the mother moved into sight. The 4 cubs and their mother continued to play in the brush. After about 10 minutes, they moved off, and although we drove around a lot, we were unable to find them again.

Every 2 or 3 days, we make the rounds of the camera traps set up next to known animal paths, or by waterholes. We change the batteries, and swap out the data cards to take back to camp to upload, and see what might have been photographed. Sometimes it’s lions, or black rhino, which is exciting, often there’s a feisty aardvark who seems to make the rounds of many of the photo traps, smiling for the camera. Yesterday there were over 1000 photos on one data card alone – most of them were a herd of buffalo, who had chased off everything else, and posed all day long for us!

camera & tracking (3)
Changing batteries in a camera trap

We’re not tourists, we’re here as volunteers with Wildlife Act, assisting in a variety of animal monitoring activities. The purpose is to count, identify, track and monitor the large animals: specifically both black and white rhino (this is Zululand Rhino Reserve), lions, cheetah, buffalo, and spotted hyena. The more information that is gathered on these different species, the more knowledge is gained about whether they are threatened or endangered, or actually doing quite well. That way governments, world associations such as WWF and game reserves can act accordingly. This camp is a brand new one for Wildlife Act, and eventually the plan is to bring in a pack of African Painted Dogs, as they are an endangered species.

dogs (8)
African Painted Dog

We drive out in the early mornings, and then again about 3 pm, to check camera traps, track and photograph large animals, with a view to identifying and monitoring their activities. Very specific data is also kept on family groups and numbers of each sex, so that genetics can be tracked, and bloodlines kept varied, around the different game reserves. In the middle of the day, back at camp, we upload photos from the camera traps, tag them with species names, recharge camera batteries, clean up around camp, prep dinner, varnish tables, build paths – basically anything that needs doing to set up a new camp!

After the second drive out, we usually get back around 6 pm. We’re on a rota for cooking dinner and washing up, so some of us make dinner, others upload photos, our own or the camera trap ones, continue entering data about the large animals we have seen, or perhaps shower. After dinner, and a bit of chat, we usually go to bed about 9 pm, as the alarm goes off again at 5 am to start again the next day.

Because of the high risk of poachers here, I’m deliberately not posting photos of the large animals, until we’ve been away from the reserve for some time, to give the animals a chance to move around. Poachers search for photos, look into the meta-data and try to grab gps information to find the animals. For the same reason, I’m not posting photos of the security teams who patrol the reserve, keeping an eye out for poachers.

This is Africa, and it’s different here. What an experience it’s turning out to be so far.

Here’s a few shots from our shopping trip into Mkhuze:

Mkhuze Mkhuze (3) Mkhuze (2) Mkhuze (1)

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