Saturday, January 30, 2010

Drama at the Lapa on a Saturday night

Last night I was having dinner at the lapa with a woman who is visiting here from Windhoek for the weekend. (I love meeting people from all over and getting their stories. She's half Hungarian and half African "colored"--which is different than African black. They are much lighter--almost white--and have their own community and culture.)

Anyway, suddenly lots of dogs barking and people yelling. A black mamba had made its presence known. My camera was far away in my room, so I'm putting a picture on this blog I found on the web.

Normally, the mongooses and meerkats keep snakes at bay--especially so close to houses and lapas--but this one was apparently pretty bold. Probably came to get a drink and celebrate the end of the week.

A few words about the black mamba to show you how scary this was:

1. They are one of the most venomous snakes in the world. One bite with their fangs has enough venom to kill 20-25 people.

2. They are the fastest snake in the world. And one of the most aggressive.

3. Only the King Cobra is a longer venomous snake in the whole world. Black Mambas can grow up to 14 feet. Fortunately, this one was only about 5 feet.

4. "Black Mamba" doesn't refer to the color. They are silvery or greenish-silvery, but their mouths (look carefully at the photo) are pitch black.

5. Unless treated, death occurs usually within 30-60 minutes. Not a pleasant death.

So Frikkie managed to corral it in a blue cooler, and he's going to take it out into the desert today and let it go.

We've lost some animals to snake bites--just like in America. So getting them off the property is mission number one. No person or creature hurt with this one, though. And since they keep the rodent population down, Frikkie didn't want to kill it--just relocate it.

Don't let this scare you off from Africa. This is my fourth trip here, and I've only seen four snakes up close and personal. As long as you don't go traipsing around in the high grass during the rainy season without looking where you're going, you'll be all right.

Friday, January 29, 2010

an assortment of species

One of the things that amazes me about Harnas and its creatures is the diversity of species that seems to survive all together. When animals are young, they don't seem to have the instincts to hate other creatures. That comes later.

As you can see in this picture, a vervet monkey, a dog, and a leopard cub can all be friends. And in my bed tonight, I have a Jack Russell terrier, a baby baboon (Jessie) and a yellow lab named Lala (whose humans, Jo and Schalk, are in Gobabis tonight and so she has sought companionship). (Those who really know me realize that this is not a burden but a delight, and the more creatures in my bed, the happier I am. In truth, I sleep well with a bed full of animals--much better than if I slept alone.)

A couple of quick examples:

1. Honey, a brown dachshund, once nursed a leopard cub, Missy Jo, along with her own puppies. They had to supplement the milk with formula, of course, but Missy Jo just seemed to need the closeness that nursing offers.

2. Martha, the lion cub, gets along famously with the dogs in the courtyard (although she's spending more time during the day with the four "baby" lions--about a year old). She rough-houses with her doggie friends, and no one seems more dominant than the other. All orphaned cubs are "given" a dog to be a companion. Tara, for example, has raised many lion cubs--and has the scars to prove it.

3. One of our zebras, Delilah, hangs out with the cow. They walk around and graze on grass all day together. Buddies.

4. Klippie, the 2-year old giraffe, doesn't seem to realize she's a giraffe. She's afraid of the wild giraffes that roam Harnas, running instead to her human companions--as well as her friends, the springboks and donkeys. Somebody get her a mirror so she can see what she is!

5. Tammy, the caracal, shares an enclosure with Malcolm, the African wild cat. They groom each other and are BFF's.

These are just a few of the examples we could all learn from. Fear and hatred of the Other seem to be learned behaviors--or at least instincts that click in later. I love seeing meerkats sharing the burrows of squirrels and baboons snuggling with dogs. It gives me hope for this world.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Goeters, the face of Harnas

A new email friend and a long-time supporter of Harnas, Regina from Austria, (who somehow found my blog!) asked me about Goeters, so I thought I'd write about him this morning.

Goeters is the oldest cheetah on Harnas--and maybe in the world. As I mentioned once before, in the wild cheetahs don't live very long, 3-5 years. But Goeters is, by Schalk's estimate, about 23 years old.

He came to Harnas when he was about a year old, rescued from the side of the road. Marieta rehabilitated him and then tried to put him in with other cheetahs, but he just stood at the fence and cried for his human companions. Finally the vet said to take him out and make him one of the family. So for years and years, Goeters has lived in the garden area and acted pretty much like a tame dog.

Anyone could pet him--family, volunteers, guests--and his purr is legendary. You can hear it most of the time before you see him. It's deep and gravel-ly and soothing. Everyone adores him.

But after many years, he showed signs of old age just this past year. It looked like he might not make it. Good vets and regular meds, though, healed him once again. But he still seemed frail. Then Marieta and her team had an idea. They tried once again to put him with other cheetahs, this time a small group of young females.

What do you know? Goeters perked right up! It seems all he needed was the adoration of younger women. In fact, something amazing happened: one of the females actually ended up pregnant! Unfortunately the babies were born premature and didn't survive, but who knew the old guy had it in him?!?

He lives still with three females--Pride, Cleopatra, and Dumas--and seems very happy and healthy. He still gets his daily meds--which he probably needs to keep up with the girls.

I'll attach a video of me with Goeters just this morning. He seemed a bit camera-shy, so I'm also including a close-up still photo. You can see he's a handsome devil.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

City Girl for a Day

I woke up this morning to a perfectly blue Wedgewood sky. No clouds or rain, a perfect day to drive to Windhoek. I have some things to print, copy, and send to NYC, so I made the 3 1/2 hour trip and am staying at a hotel here in the city. I admit, it feels weird to be back in traffic, see people, and hear noise. But here are some things I've noticed on this trip:

1. On the drive in, I saw five giraffes just standing and eating off a tree about 20 yards off the road. I know they must belong to a game farm, but it was a strange sight to those of us who still marvel at seeing a squirrel in the wild.

2. The "wildlife crossing" signs here don't have deer on them. Many of them have the silhouette of a warthog--and yes, they look eerily similar to the warthog in Disney's "The Lion King," whatever his name was. (Pumba?)

3. On the streets of the city, I've heard at least five different languages, at least one of which is a bushman tongue with clicks, clacks, and ticks. Very musical.

4. The gas stations don't have self-service options. I was forced to sit in my car and let others fill my tank (even toy cars need fuel), clean my windows, check my water, and take my money. What a luxury that my generation has nearly forgotten in America!

5. I listened to African radio, which on the same station in succession played schoolchildren singing a folk song, Shania Twain's "I Feel Like A Woman," an operatic Ave Maria, and then a hymn--which if I'm not mistaken, was "Nearer My God to Thee."

6. Water pressure! At Harnas my bathroom has no shower curtain--because the water pressure is so low that the water doesn't have the opportunity to hit outside the bathtub. In the hotel, I remembered what a shower feels like!

7. I visited my favorite street in Windhoek with local artisans displaying their goods on the ground. I pretend to bargain for the carved cheetah or the woven basket, but in truth, I'm just looking for an opportunity to give them more money than they ask.

8. The hotel TV doesn't have a lot of channels compared to America (maybe fifteen), but four of them were playing soccer (different games) and one had the Australian Open. Go figure.

9. And finally, Joe's Beer House--a local and famous eatery where I had dinner with Marieta's daughter-in-law, Melanie. Amazing grass roofs, group tables, and the best food in the city. Melanie saw at least 10 people she knew, and believe it or not, I met two people I knew! Big city/small town.

I forgot to bring the connector from my camera to laptop, so pictures will have to wait. In the meantime, I thought I'd give you a video of Petrus, the bartender at Harnas, speaking in the San language, telling you about himself and his family. Cheers! Back to the bush tomorrow afternoon.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Martha on a walk

Just a quick addition to this morning's blog. I went on a walk with Martha, the lion cub this afternoon along with several volunteers, including Lars, the guy in this video. It shows the kind of thing we do on a walk--just playing the way you would with your dog at home. I got jumped twice from behind, but she was in a good mood, so no claws or teeth. (She's the moodiest lion I've ever known.)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Taking the Lions for a Walk

Yesterday, Sunday, I asked Frikkie and Marieta if we could take some lions on a walk through the bush so I could get some film of Marieta with her buddies. We decided to take "the brothers," three boys from the same litter of September 2008. When I was here for Christmas 2008 they were about the size of my dog, Mile--around 35 pounds. Now they're--well, you'll see.

We loaded them up in a truck and took them out to a clearing under the power lines where the grass isn't so high. Then we simply walked. They walked with us. They played and pounced on each other and let us hug, pet, cuddle, and stroll alongside. I held their tails the way you'd hold a dog leash. These are really well-behaved lions--more so than the younger ones who don't seem to have much self-discipline.

It's hard to describe what it feels like to just hang out with some lions. They'd brush up against us and rub their heads on us--just like housecats. I had Marieta sit down in the grass and they came up and collapsed on her (their heads were higher than hers). It's truly amazing that she has such a way with animals--all animals. They seem to sense her comfort with them and they obey her and treat her as if she's their mother. Of course, in a way, Marieta IS mother to all of the animals here. So many of them were raised from infants, bottle-fed by her, talked to and cuddled with. She's got such a way with them. They sense she has no fear and she respects them.

Lions, especially, she always says, can be trusted if you know what to look for. Leopards are very difficult to read but lions give you fair warning. Their faces, their tails, their sounds--all these give clues as to whether they want to be approached and touched.

Most of the filming was of Marieta and Frikkie because that was the point of the outing, but I did hand my camera to Lars, a volunteer who went with us to take pictures. He shot a short clip of me. Just so you know I'm really here and still alive and kicking, I'll attach it.

I should mention that lion fur is rather coarse--not at all like a leopard's velvety pelt--which is why, I guess, lions haven't had to worry about being part of the fashion industry. But under the coat, you can feel the muscles--so strong, no fat, just liquid muscle. I could pet them all day. And their heads! They're enormous and they love to be petted the same places as any cat--along the jaw line, behind the ears, forehead. I was in heaven. I constantly marvel that I have this opportunity to engage with all the creatures. I feel so lucky.

Friday, January 22, 2010

giant frogs take over Harnas

Okay, perhaps the title is a bit dramatic, but it's not far from the truth. We had a lot of rain two nights ago, and yesterday morning while I was eating breakfast, Frikkie brought in a Giant African Bullfrog--the size of a dinner plate. (It's the 2nd biggest frog--apparently there's a bigger one in the Congo.) It has a green back and an orange and yellow belly. A bit slimy.

Marieta asked me to take some pictures of the frogs, which had taken over the area beyond the horse corral. I walked out there and waded in to a place that two days ago was a dirt field. Suddenly it was a small lake. I looked for movement and saw splashing on the far side. I waded across the water that came up to my mid-calves in places.

And there they were--dozens of these huge beasts--slpashing, swimming, mating--it was astounding. Where did they all come from?

I did some research and found out that these frogs live underground most of their lives in a cocoon of water. Then during the rainy season, they make their way out for a day or two, mate, and then dig themselves in again to lay eggs.

Other than their massive size to intimidate, they also have sharp teeth--they're carnivorous and eat anything that will fit in their mouths--including the human hand. They're aggressive and can swell up to twice their size to scare off predators. And they live 20-30 years! They can weigh up to 4 1/2 pounds (!) and be 2 feet wide (!!)

I also found out that the Namibians wait for them to come out so they can eat them. BUT--and this is where is gets even more interesting--they can be poisonous and cause kidney disease if they're eaten before they mate. The rule is to wait to eat until "after the third rain."

So I took pictures, came back to my room and did some research on them, and later in the afternoon went out to get some film. They were gone! Just like that they have disappeared for another year underground.

The one picture shows a closeup. Take it from me: they're massive.

What else can I say? Giant flesh-eating frogs that appear and disappear in a day!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

cheetahs and more cheetahs

It's been a couple of days of cheetahs, cheetahs, cheetahs. First, we had a sick one that had to be transported to the vet in Windhoek (our vet gets back tomorrow, thank goodness). It had some kind of intestinal problem that is being fixed, and he'll be fine. He comes home Saturday. Then a farmer found and trapped a cheetah on his farm and brought it here. It's being treated for worms and will also be fine eventually and released with some of our cheetahs.

Next, in the wild cheetah enclosure--a HUGE space that holds 28 cheetahs who were caught by farmers and so are very wild--there were 3 missing. We feed them every day, and we count them as they take their slab of meat. For several days we were short three of them, so Frikkie (the volunteer director) decided we must find them in case there's something wrong with them. Many of them are very old, though, for cheetahs, so the probability of death by old age was high.

Just a couple of words on cheetahs: they are incredible beautiful creatures, but they're also very delicate and endangered. Genetically they are all so similar that they've developed a lot of problems. Some quick stats: Only about 10% of cheetahs in the wild make it to adulthood. The ones who do only live 3-5 years. But in captivity, they can live twenty years or even more. The problem is that they don't usually reproduce in captivity (although some at Harnas have). So every cheetah counts.

I asked Frikkie if I could help with the search since I knew that the more people the better. So we spread out along one fence--about 20 of us--and walked through the bush about ten meters apart, checking for sick or wounded cats. We each took only a small stick and an attitude of authority. With twenty-something healthy wild cats, we were always running into them. Fortunately, cheetahs can be dominated pretty easily. You just have to look them in the eye and speak harshly to them and point the stick. They'll hiss and act like they're going to attack, but if you don't back down, they'll run away.

It took about two hours to cover the enclosure and we found three carcasses. It seems they all died, probably of old age. We also saw lots of interesting insects (not my favorite) and a couple of snakes. Every plant in Africa, it seems, has thorns, so our legs and arms were all pricked and bleeding as if we had been attacked by pins. But it was work that felt good--does that make sense? Real. Physical. Goal-oriented. It reminded me of what it means to be a volunteer here, as I was back in Feb of 2007. Hard and dirty work. But it's satisfying.

Then this morning I asked Frikkie if there was anything I could do to help. He smiled at me and said, "Yes I have a big job for you. I want you to take the five tame cheetahs for a walk. If no one takes them, they sit around all day under trees, and cheetahs need exercise."

"Ah. What a difficult job. Walking with beautiful, tame, and loving cheetahs." I accepted the "job" and walked about 1/2 mile to their enclosure. I called to them and they all came running (they probably thought I had meat). But even when they knew it was just me with no food, they followed me. We walked for about an hour through the bush. I kept calling "Come cheetahs! Come , come, come!' And amazingly enough, they followed me!

Every once in a while I'd stop and wait for them to catch up to me and we'd have a little love-fest. They'd purr while I'd pet them. It was heavenly. They are the most astounding creatures. I took a short video of them as they came to explore my camera. They're curious just like little house cats. Listen for their purrs.

Monday, January 18, 2010

more vet experience

Long day yesterday because, as I mentioned in the previous blog, Coco had been hurt. She had a quick run-in with a lion cub who was in the wrong spot, and she got snatched and then snatched back. No external bleeding, but shock and a lump on her side. She made it through Sunday night, but yesterday morning when she was still looking really bad, Marieta decided to send three of us with Coco to the vet in Windhoek.

This is no quick trip like it is in America. We didn't know how long we'd be, so we had to pack for the night, load up the car, and be flexible. Marieta sent Marnus, a researcher and program director from South Africa, Cat from Seattle, and me--we were the three with the closest bond with Coco, I guess. Marnus drove, Cat rode shotgun, and I sat in the back with the hurting baboon for the four hours to the vet. Each breath was punctuated for Coco with "eh, eh, eh." Pain.

Once at the vet, the doctor diagnosed a hernia and said we must do surgery. The cool part is that he said I could sit in. I even assisted ("hold this" "lift that" and "keep that tube level"). I'd never seen surgery up close, and I was surprised at how "energetic" it is. I had always pictured it as delicate and precise. Now I know why people are so sore after surgery.

After four hours at the vet, they released Coco and we started the drive back to Harnas since they said we didn't have to leave her overnight. It rained most of the way, but we were determined to get home. We arrived at 10:30, Marieta and I switched baby baboons, and I took Jessie to bed with me so Marieta could focus on the recovering patient.

Apparently she didn't sleep much, but Coco looks better this morning. Her scar will be pretty big because he had to open her up pretty far so that he could make sure there was no more damage. I'll include a picture of it.

So--more vet experience for me. It's very cool that they are letting me participate so much in this. It makes me want to go back and get NC State to let me in their vet school. But I guess I'm too old for that. I'll just have to be happy with assisting.

The thing that I kept coming back to yesterday was that Marieta goes to all this trouble, expense, time, and energy for one little baboon. Some would say that the baboon isn't an endangered animal so we should "waste" so much on one individual. Maybe, they'd say, "It's not worth it." But Marieta would answer that person with "It's worth it to that baby baboon." That's why I love her and her work so much. She believes in the individual, not JUST the species. Each animal has the right to the best life possible. That's the spirit here at Harnas.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

wild dogs

First an update on Jessie: we removed the bandage on the foot so it can get some air, but the one on the hand still needs to be wrapped so that she won't chew and suck on it. She doesn't seem to know she's wounded, though. She jumps around just like before--just can't hold on and climb as well with that big bandage on--it looks like a big, white mitten. Coco was hurt last night, though (more on that some other day), so Jessie slept with me and Pickles. One big animal family.

I want to tell you about an animal that a lot of people don't know about outside Africa--the African Wild Dog. They're amazing but very endangered because they're such successful hunters (in packs) that the farmers shoot them just for existing. Harnas has a Wild Dog Project that is trying to breed them and then release them in controlled areas. Right now, Harnas has about 1% of the Wild Dog population that exists.

They're about the size of a medium-sized dog and each one has a different "tye-dye" look to their coat--like a fingerprint they can be identified by this. They have big round ears like Mickey Mouse that help them communicate with each other while they hunt. And the SOUND. Nothing like you've ever heard. Not a bark, not a yelp--a kind of squeak. When we go out to feed them, they go nuts and all make noise at once. I'm going to include a video of their feeding frenzy because if you haven't heard it, you'd never believe it.

When they hunt, they take turns running after the animal, and one dog gets tired, others take over, taking nips and bites out of the prey until it's exhausted and falls. Then they share the kill--even taking meat home to old dogs and pups. They're matriarchal--go girls--and only the alpha female gets to have litters, but all of the females help take care of them. With them, it's all for one and one for all. They know their strength is in their numbers, not their power (like lions), their stealth (like leopards), or their speed (like cheetahs).

Here's the video:

Saturday, January 16, 2010

chaos reigns supreme

A small tragedy here yesterday. The electricity had been going on and off all day (this is remote AFrica, after all), and during one outage, some of the big baboons jumped the usually-electrified fence of their enclosure and came over to the garden area. I heard the commotion and looked out my door to see two big males on top of the baby baboon enclosure where Jessie and Coco were playing. This is usually fine--they're safe there--so I herded some dogs into my room, locked the door, and waited for the bushmen to chase the baboons back to the home (they're very experienced at this).

An hour or so later, I fixed two baby bottles of formula and took them out to Jessie and Coco. When I picked up Jessie, I noticed lots of small dots of what looked like mud on her. I looked closer: it was blood. I looked her over from head to toe and found a horrible truth: the big baboon had grabbed her through the fence and bit off (yes, BIT off) two of her fingers and one of her toes. The wounds had stopped bleeding, but Jessie's eyes were at half-mast and her gums were white--a sure sign of an animal in shock.

I grabbed both babies and ran to the clinic where I radioed for help. Marieta was still in Windhoek for the conference, her son Schalk was in Gobabis picking his son up from school, and our vet had gone for the week to South Africa to renew his work visa. It appeared that the inmates were running the asylum, so I had to learn fast from the two people who helped. We washed the wounds, put on antiseptic and antibiotics, bandaged the wounds and gave her two injections--one for shock and one for pain.

Jessie was so brave. Through it all, she hardly made a squeak. I held the two baboons all afternoon and into the night (Marieta is coming home today). Jessie gradually improved and we fell into a semi-sleep. This morning her foot looks good, but the hand not so much. The vet is coming today to work on several animals, and we'll have him look at her.

This, too, is Africa. Along with the amazing people, places, and animals comes danger and occasional chaos. And I've learned to do what I have to do--while not crying and falling apart (which is my first impulse). We could learn a lot from the stoicism of animals: they don't dramatize their pain, and when they get better, they don't dwell on it. They just get back to the business of living.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

baboons in my bed

Marieta has gone to Windhoek (3-hour drive) for a few days for a carnivore-caretakers conference (not exactly the Junior League), so she asked me to baboon-sit the two newest babies here on Harnas, Coco and Jessie. I was very flattered since she doesn't let just anybody take care of her little ones. Baboons are her favorite.

Most of the time it's easy: I have to feed them a bottle every four hours, but most of the day they spend in their nice enclosure with a little house, swings, trees, and visiting volunteers. Sometimes I take them out to the grassy area under the tree to play. But at night they need nurturing, so I sleep with them in my bed.

In case you're wondering, they wear preemie diapers. I cut a hole in the back side, thread their tails through it, and fasten the diapers around their midsection--just like human babies, except for the tail of course. And of course it's not easy to do all this with a baboon who won't hold still.

After the last bottle for the night and getting those diapers on, I took them to the bedroom. The first hour or so was pretty lively. I thought I'd removed anything that looks like a toy to them, but then I realized that anything can be a toy to a baboon. Their favorite game was for one to distract me while the other climbed the headboard and jumped on my face from above. ( I have new respect for mothers with twins.)

Little by little they calmed down, starting sucking on their pacifiers (yes, a pacifier!), and we settled down for the night. I'd wake up every so often to check on them. Once they were cuddled one under each arm, another time they were hugging each other. Another time we were all spooning, and once one of them was stretched out across my neck with a little hand resting on my cheek. It was sweet--but a little claustrophobic.

They slept for 8 hours, woke ready to play, and I fed them and took them to their enclosure for a few hours. A one-of-a-kind experience.

I get to do it all over tonight. Marieta will be home tomorrow.

I'll attach a couple of pictures of them. When they hang on your legs, we call them baboon-boots.

And by the way, if there's anybody out there reading this--and I'm not sure if there is--feel free to email me to ask questions about Harnas, the animals, the book I've written, or anything else that seems appropriate. I'm listening!

Monday, January 11, 2010

king of Harnas

Yesterday I went out on the guest tour. We ride in a big "safari" style truck and visit the outer enclosures where the older animals live (most of whom were raised here from babies) while volunteers feed them their daily food. It's a great 3-hour experience coming face to face with leopards, lions, cheetahs, baboons, caracals, African wild dogs and so on--and the guide gives so much interesting and important information as you drive and watch. It's more of an educational experience rather than like visiting a zoo. Guests come away with a new understanding of the plight of many of these creatures.

I love going just to catch up on how everyone's doing. It's great fun to see old friends and new additions.

One of the most impressive sights is Sher Khan, the biggest and most fierce of the lions (although he'll soon be caught in size by Zion, one of the lions who was a cub when I came here three years ago). Sher Khan was once a small, cuddly cub, but he's 8 or 9 now, and as male lions become mature, they grow more aggressive and can't be approached anymore by people--even the ones who raised him. (The females often stay relatively tame.)

I'm going to include a video of Sher Khan's behavior as we stopped and approached his fence. You'll see him kicking up dirt--that' s sign of aggression and marking his territory. You'll also see that the fence between me and him looks small and fragile, but be aware that there are electric currents running through it that deter him from rushing the fence.

It's quite a sight. Enjoy it!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

the first 24 hours

I'm here. I rented a car at the Windhoek airport and drove three hours out into the bush to get to Harnas. I got an inkling of the adventure as I drove along--all by myself, driving in a car with the steering on the right, driving on the left side of the road, listening to Afrikaan music, and thinking, "Gee, I hope I don't have a flat tire out here in the middle of nowhere." The car is essentially a wind-up toy, but it got me here--even on the dirt roads for the last hour.

The first 24 hours have been so wonderful. After greeting all the people I've come to think of as my second family, I wandered the farm to see where changes have been made and animals added and subtracted. I found my favorite creatures (don't tell the others) and I swear they remember me. I just fell on my knees in front of my cheetahs, they started purring, and Pride draped her head over my shoulder so I could give her a big hug. (Hugging a purring cheetah is like being inside a vibrating bed, by the way.)

Today (Sunday) was non-stop. I helped return a recently injured cheetah to an outer enclosure, I helped relocate a leopard to a new location farther from the farm (she jumped onto the roof of the truck, and tried to stick her head in the window--very dangerous animal--but we got her inside the back of the truck with bloody meat as a lure), I visited the new family of meerkats--one with a cast on his little broken arm), watched a spitting cobra sidle across in front of the truck (yikes!), fed some peanuts to vervet monkeys, went horseback riding (I won't be able to walk tomorrow), and took a nap--all before dinner.

But the most memorable moment of the last 24 hours happened last night. I was eating dinner at the lapa with Marieta, laughing so hard I could hardly breathe, listening to her stories. And then we walked back to the courtyard near her home (my guest room is off this area). It was so dark, but once we got inside the gate, she said, "Stay here. I know things by touch. I'll go turn on some lights.) So I stood in the dark with a dozen or so dogs brushing up against me and licking me. I reached down, petted a few, and felt something different. The fur was thicker and coarser, and the muscle underneath it felt more "liquid-ey"--you know, fluid. Then it dawned on me.

"Marieta! There's a lion mixed in with these dogs!" I yelled.

I heard her laughing from across the courtyard. "Oh that's just Martha. She sleeps with the dogs at night."

The lights came on, and sure enough, a lion about the size of a labrador retriever was winding herself around my knees, pushing her forehead into my legs.

I don't know why these magical moments continue to surprise me here at Harnas. They happen all the time. But every time one happens, I feel wonder all over again.

This morning when I got up, I couldn't open my door--Martha was sleeping against it. Most people would feel scared, I guess, at knowing there was a lion sleeping just 10 feet from their bed, but somehow it made me feel safe to know that I was guarded by her all night.

Just another day at Harnas.

Friday, January 8, 2010

almost there

Well, I'm almost there. I've been on the road (or in the air) for a day and a half, but I'm on the last leg, getting ready to board a plane from Jo'Berg to Windhoek.

I've had lots of people tell me that they'd love to travel internationally if they could just snap their fingers and be there. It's the travel that scares so many away from places like Africa and Asia. But I tend to believe what Dan Eldon said (he was a young photojournalist who was killed in a riot in Somalia). He said the difference between a tourist and a traveler is that for a traveler, "the journey IS the destination." I like that. I figure my adventure starts as soon as I'm dropped off at the airport.

And it's been an adventure in many ways. Don't get me wrong--sometimes it's boring or frustrating. For example, I went through security not once, not twice, not even three times, but FOUR separate places. I went through a full-body-scan (just like on TV!), an intimate pat-down, taking my shoes off and on, unpacking my laptop. But everyone was nice, kept a sense of humor, and we all survived. And along the way, I've met some interesting people in line, sitting in an airport, and flying in a plane. Traveling alone tends to make me reach out to other people--which we tend not to do if we have a companion with us.

I met an interesting guy from India on my flight from New York to Abu Dhabi (yes, I know--weird route. But my travel agent got a deal on Etihad Airways, and let's face it, it's just fun to say "Abu Dhabi."). I met a student from Durban, South Africa, and I met a hilarious woman in line for security (who claimed that after her pat-down, she could miss her OB-GYN appointment that year).

So three legs down and two more to go on this journey--one flying and one driving. I don't have my camera handy, or I'd take a picture of this plane out the window with its nose painted like a soccer ball. But I'll attach a photo of someone I'm on my way to see--Klippie the giraffe--who was only a baby when I saw her last but is now probably taller than seems possible.

Next stop, Harnas.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

I'm still in North Carolina, frantically packing, unpacking, deleting stuff, and repacking. I'm taking a lot of gifts to Namibia, so most of my bag seems full of things I won't have once I get there. I love taking gifts, though. Out in the middle of nowhere, they really appreciate Victoria's Secret underwear or a new t-shirt. I'm also taking beads for the Bushwomen to make jewelry. They make beautiful things, but it's hard for them to find the materials.

I'm going to try to include a short video from when I was a Harnas once before. It's off my favorite cheetah, Pride, one afternoon when I was giving her a good scratching. Her purr is really loud, but the microphone doesn't really pick it up. Next time I'll make sure I get right down next to her chest so you can feel the vibrations. I can't wait to see her--just a couple of days and I'll be on my way.

I've been dreaming of Africa for weeks now.

Somehow the website for Harnas got cut off my previous post. Here it is: Volunteers and visitors are always welcome.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

the first blog

In five days I'm heading back to Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary in Namibia, Africa. I've been three times before--once as a volunteer and twice doing interviews and research for my book that's coming out next September with National Geographic: The Soul of a Lion. The book tells the story of the founder of the sanctuary, Marieta van der Merwe (pronounced ma-REET-a van der mare-v) and the evolution of this place that now takes care of around 400 orphaned, injured, and abandoned wild animals.

It's a magical place and I can't wait to get back to the people and the animals. The picture on my profile is me with one of my favorite cheetahs, Pride. I'll include another picture here of me and some of the baby baboons. What crazy creatures they are! They're so like humans--but twice as strong and three times a mischievous. But when they cuddle up to you and sleep--ah, what bliss. Their little heads are the size of baseballs when they're born, and hands have long fingers with black nails. They love to kiss and be kissed. And they cling to you like a second skin.

Time to get packing for this trip. If you want more info on Harnas before my next blog, you can go to the website:

Till then! --Barb