Monday, May 23, 2011
Chasing Giraffes, Part I: In Which Our Heroine Sets Off on an Adventure
We are sitting in a small conference room with brick walls, blinds closed against the bright South African sun, listening as nurse Gillian Thompson describes all the possible ways we might vrek once we go out into the bush:
Puff adder bite (tissue death and gangrene).
Black mamba bite (respiratory paralysis).
Accidental exposure to etorphine, a large animal sedative (respiratory and cardiac arrest).
Animal attack (massive internal trauma).
If you've guessed that in South Africa, to vrek means to die, award yourself fifty smart points.
My first clue that this wasn't going to be your standard relaxing vacation had come months earlier, when my sweetheart sent me an email about a South African ecotourism trip. At the word ecotourism, I'd immediately pictured one of those safaris you read about in magazines: khaki-clad tourists snapping photos of wildlife from a rugged jeep, then toasting the day's sightings with champagne and chocolate eclairs. I eagerly skimmed the description:
"If you are physically fit, enjoy strenuous outdoor work and a high level of adrenaline, this is the course for you!"
Hm. Actually, I prefer lying on the couch with a glass of wine and a Jane Austen novel. Still, I kept reading.
"For safety sake, you are expected to be able to sprint short distances (100meters), run medium distances (200 meters), climb over 2 meter (6 ft.) fences, and have a great deal of endurance!"
Wait a minute. What about the jeep? The photograph-snapping? Exactly what kind of ecotourism are we talking about here?
"Depending on what captures are available...your experience may range from a nighttime lion capture to catching several hundred antelope in a day. Your participation in captures will be as extensive as possible...We will work with very dangerous wild animals in free-ranging situations."
The sprint-and-climb-fences thing was now starting to make a horrible kind of sense. But...surely there would be chocolate eclairs?
"You must be prepared to be up very early, working outside, in the sun, doing physical work most of the day. And you will have the time of your life!"
I'm going to shamelessly give myself credit here. To my sweetie's emailed question: What do you think? I did NOT shoot back, Have you EVER met me?
Next thing I knew we were in Hoedspruit, South Africa, about to embark on an intense, hands-on, 9-day course in wild animal capture. Our leader: Andre Pienaar, founder of Parawild, specialist in game management and conservation. Our companions: two friends, Dave (zookeeper) and Margot (zoo veterinary technician); Kevin (4th-year veterinary student); Brent (wildlife major and self-described professional river rat); Tanya (2nd-year veterinary student); and her boyfriend, Ferris (computer specialist).
Andre's original plan was to have us rough it in tents on the open veldt. Thanks to logistical difficulties, however, we ended up at Landela Lodge, a game ranch with private rooms, en suite baths and beautifully prepared South African cuisine. Here I am devastated at the unexpected change:
You may have noticed the decor. Something you should know about game ranches: While they welcome ecotourists, like us, their main business is providing hunters with animals to shoot.
More about that later.
We may have escaped roughing it in tents, but rising early was still part of the program. Most mornings we got up and breakfasted on the Landela patio while it was still dark, in order to be ready for a game walk at dawn.
Those were the days we got to sleep in. Otherwise, when we had someplace to be, we were up and on the road even earlier.
On our game walks we mostly saw animal tracks, which Andre taught us how to identify.
We also saw a lot of scat, which is either a style of jazz singing or wildlife poop. Ella Fitzgerald wasn't on the trip, so you can guess which one I mean.
Actual creatures spotted ranged from the very large...
...to the very, very small. These are pants. Each teeny, tiny little dot on the pants is a pepper tick. Thankfully, these are not MY pants.
After the game walks, refreshed, wide awake, and de-vermined, we headed inside for coffee and education. Before we got the chance to round up wild creatures, we had some larnin' to do. Over the first two days, Andre taught us about the history of game management and wildlife conservation in South Africa, as well as the physiology, pharmacology, and techniques of game capture.
Then came Gillian Thompson, explaining in her pleasant, lilting voice the many ways in which we might vrek. There's no LifeFlight in the South African bush; if something went wrong, all we could rely on was each other. Under Gilly's cheerful supervision, we practiced CPR and setting IV catheters in each other. Note Margot smiling as I stab her wrist vein. Margot can smile through almost anything. Plus she's a whiz with a hypodermic. If you are going on a trip in which you might vrek, these are qualities you want in a traveling companion.
After catheter practice, Andre organized a footrace to see which of us was fastest. Brent and Kevin, the top two finishers, were awarded a massively long rope. Then they got to run some more, chasing after Andre in a kind of dress rehearsal:
The rest of us were given our assignments, and Andre led us through the plan. Our time had come: the next morning, we would be assisting in the capture and transport of three full-grown giraffes.
Coming soon, Part II: In Which Our Heroine Discovers that Acacia Bushes are Sharp & Giraffe Hide is Tough, and Her Sweetheart Almost Fricks Off the Back of a Leaping Bucky.