Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On the Road Again

I'm leaving today for a road trip of sorts to see more of Namibia. I've been to this beautiful country four times now, but I love Harnas so much that I haven't seen much else.

Melanie, Marieta's daughter-in-law, is going to remedy that. We're heading to Swakopmund first, a seaside resort famous in America for being the place Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie went to have their baby Shiloh. Marieta will be with us on that part of the journey.

Then Marieta has to return to Harnas because a film crew is coming and she must be in the film. So Melanie and I will continue alone to Irindi, the largest private game park in Namibia.

I'm not taking my laptop, so unless I run into an internet cafe somewhere, you won't hear from me for about a week. Try not to get too excited.

Meanwhile, I'll leave you with some of my favorite photos of Harnas that you haven't seen yet.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

croc around the clock

Harnas' two crocodiles, (Ina and Claus--whose names I'd didn't know for a long time so I called them Newman and Kramer) have been here over ten years. They'd never produced eggs, so people were wondering if they were, perhaps, the same sex. (It's difficult to ask a full-grown crocodile to "roll over" --and it wouldn't help anyway.)

But this past October, they began to dig holes, and sure enough, around 40-50 eggs appeared. It's been suspenseful waiting, and when the time came and left (mid-January) for the eggs to hatch and the mother to dig them out, we all got worried.

On Marieta's and my trip to Otjivarongo (note this new and correct spelling of the town), we asked the owner of the croc farm lots of questions, and he told us to dig them up and see if there were any living babies. (Although he also said hatching can take up to 6 months in the wild--and the changes with global warming has affected a lot of the animals in various ways.)

First of all, you need to know that a very small percentage of baby crocs are hatched, healthy, and strong enough to survive the first few days. Out of the eggs, we got six or seven living crocs, 4 of whom survived the shock of entering life (also normal. The owner of the croc far, said they are easily affected by stress and often die from it when they're babies.)

To protect them, then, from people peering at them and picking them up, Marieta has put them in one of her bathtubs with a heater in the room to keep them warm. They all seem to be doing well, and by my count, it will be easier to take care of 4 rather than 40.

Today Marieta and I will start feeding them--chicken, with tweezers to protect our fingers. They already have teeth (and they squeak!).

Despite growing up to be true monsters in size and aggression, they're actually cute at this age. Well, maybe not puppy cute, but cute in a baby dinosaur way.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Road Trip

Thursday night Marieta asked me if I'd go on a road trip with her. It seems her John Deere tractor had broken down, and the only place that services John Deeres in the whole country of Namibia is a place called Otjiwarongo (O-chee-va-rango). I agreed so we left the next morning at 5:00 a.m. We were supposed to bring along a Bushman with us in case we had a flat tire, but Marieta forgot to ask one, so we left hoping we wouldn't need one.

I failed to mention that Otjiwarongo is a small town over four hours away--a trip that is entirely on gravel roads. (I'm currently looking for a donor to replace my damaged kidneys, by the way.) The road goes through the Herero tribal land, and looks amazingly like the deserts of Arizona (minus the saguaro cactus). And the scenery never changes. Ever. I mean never.

As you can see by the pictures, we had a good time. We did some shopping at the Pick and Pay, visited an upscale bar and then an entertainment center, finally picking up our parts for the tractor at Theo's.

I jest, of course. These are pictures I took along the way so you could see what I saw for four-plus hours there on Friday and four-plus hours back today. After seeing the scenery, I was a bit worried about what I would find at Ojtiwarongo, but in fact, it's a fairly good sized town for this part of the country--12,000 people? It's one of those towns whose sole purpose seems to be the place rural people come on the weekend to get supplies. So, fancy--no, but decent, yes.

Our hotel turned out to be quite a nice little lodge called C'est Si Bon! Hotel--translation for non-French speakers, approximately "It's Good! Hotel." But this time advertising lived up to its name--palm trees, tropical birds, grass-roofed bungalows, a decent restaurant.

The one interesting thing we did Friday afternoon in town was visit the crocodile farm--raised mainly for handbags, belts, and shoes. We had some questions about our croc eggs at Harnas (more on that another day), so we visited the place and took the tour, such as it was. The guide took us in the 2-year-old room where probably about a hundred crocs were swimming around behind a three-foot high cement wall. (They were about 4 feet long each.) Marieta kept saying, "Feel the water, Barbara. It's not as warm as you'd think. We need to remember this temperature."

Finally, to prove I wasn't a scared American woman (that I was) I leaned over the wall and reached down into a corner where there didn't seem to be as many bodies and touched the water. Just at that point, my sunglasses--which where hanging on my t-shirt--fell into the water. All the crocs moved at once, but these are prescription sunglasses, so without thinking, I reached down again and snatched the glasses, literally, from the jaws of death. All of them had moved in my direction--suddenly and quickly.

The guide just took the glasses (which were now covered in croc crap) and rinsed them off for me. Marieta was no help because she was doubled over, laughing her head off. I just stood there, waiting for the adrenalin to drain from my body so I could breathe again.

No more close brushes with being someone's dinner. We drove home today, me wearing proudly my sunglasses--that although they are leopard print--will always be known to me as my Croc Crap glasses.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Mr. Nielson

One of my favorite little creatures here on Harnas is Mr. Nielson, a black-capped squirrel monkey. He's tiny tiny tiny--if you measure from about where your wrist begins to the top of your middle finger, his body is about that long. His tail is that length again. He weighs less than two pounds.

Mr. N isn't from around here. He was being smuggled in to Namibia with some other of his buddies and was confiscated. Normally he lives in the rain forests of South America--mainly in Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. He has vocal cords, so he can make cute little sounds.

Because Harnas is an animal sanctuary, he and his friends were allowed to come here (Namibia has a law that non-native species cannot come into the country). Fortunately, he wasn't put down--as many smuggled animals are. Unfortunately, all of his buddies died of tuberculosis.

But Mr. Nielson is a hearty little guy and has been here for years in his enclosure in the garden area. I just adore him. I like to go inside and put a peanut on my shoulder. He'll jump to my shoulder long enough to take the nut and then jump back somewhere else. "Spider" monkey is a good name--he likes hanging off the wall way up high.

It takes him forever to eat just one peanut because he's so small, so I have lots of time to observe him. He's extremely shy, so he'll try to hide away in the leaves and branches, but he's also very understanding if you move closer to get a better look.

He lives with Dixie the dassie--a strange little animal that I'll tell you about another time. Mr. N lives up high; she lives down low. It's a good combination.

Aren't his eyes wonderful? And I wish you could feel his soft little hair. A cutie-pie, for sure.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lion Chess

Frikkie has been playing a bit of "lion chess" the last two days. He's moving individual lions around for various reasons. In addition, the vets need to put microchips into all the lions--there's a new law that large carnivores in Namibia need to be identified and chipped. It's to help with poaching, black market selling, and so on.

So yesterday morning, I went with Frikkie, the two vets, Desmond and Andrea, Gary, and some volunteers. The interesting thing is that the lions seem to sense when they're going to be darted--at least they figure out something is suspicious--and they disappear. And once one is darted, they start "talking" to each other from enclosure to enclosure, and all the others disappear, too.

So it took us some time to find Lerato hiding in the bush. Then we lured her out with a slab of ribs (extra rare, no sauce). Then Desmond darted her. It was just like Nat Geo channel. I'll include the video. (Actually, what we eventually learned is that we had darted the other female in the enclosure, Teri. But that was fine. Either was good for our purposes and both had to be done eventually. We probably all look alike to them as well as the other way around.)

Then we had to wait about 20 minutes for the drug to take complete effect (longer is better when you're talking about an angry darted lion). The dart must not have hit a muscle because she didn't sleep. Desmond had to dart her again. Finally she went to sleep.

It took six people to pick up the stretcher with the lioness on it and move it to the truck. Then we moved to Elsa's enclosure with our sleepy girl. Then we darted Elsa--who is so tame that she just stood there and let Desmond do it--what a sweetie.

A lot of you out there know that recently Elsa lost her enclosure pal, Sara, our oldest lion and the last of the South African lions that Marieta rescued from a bad zoo near Port Elizabeth. She was in her 20s--old by a lion's standards. (Those SA lions were the genetic base of nearly all the lions here at Harnas. ) Anyway, Elsa has been lonely since then, and she needed a friend. (She would stand at the fence when I'd go visit her and make this sad noise somewhere between a whine and moan.)

We put the two females (Teri is actually Elsa's daughter; Lerato is her granddaughter) under two trees close together so they could wake up slowly with each other and therefore wouldn't fight. (It's no fun to fight with a hangover, I guess.) They're up and around today--no problems.

It sounds easy, but there was a lot of driving through the bush, looking for lions who don't want to be found, and waiting. We tried again today for some different ones to move around, but word was definitely out, and nobody was getting darted today. If a lion doesn't want to be found, it's a good chance it won't--unless it's really hungry. Maybe tomorrow.

All in all it was amazing. When I was a kid I dreamed of doing this kind of thing--I used to love National Geographic specials, Jacques Cousteau shows, and Wild Kingdom. I don't know how I ended up teaching literature to college kids, but our roads often take turns we don't understand. At least I'm getting to take part in this right now--and for that, I'm immensely grateful and humbled.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Babies that aren't so small

Yesterday afternoon I went on a walk with the "Babies" but don't get the wrong idea. They're anything but babies. They're four lions that are called that to differentiate them from the "Brothers"--3 male lions that were born first. Then less than a year later came these four--2 males and 2 females. Right now I figure they're about 75-80 kg each--approximately165-175 pounds--not exactly infants.

They're better behaved than they used to be, but for some reason, they thought my camera was a toy and "tested" me by attacking me over and over. (Maybe it was because it's red?) No claws or teeth (okay, one time--in the video with the lion in the tree--my pants got torn in the back and I got a scratch on the back of my leg, but I'm still not sure if it was a lion claw or a big thorn.)

Anyway, the whole hour and a half we were walking, they tried to tackle me. When I got home and loaded the videos into my computer, I had to laugh and laugh. It looks like one of those Animal Attacks programs you see on cheesy television--especially when you view them over and over.

So I'm going to include three of them so you can get the idea. Let it be known that I never let them get the best of me. Never screamed. Never ran. But I did protest a lot.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Don't Try This At Home

A few mornings ago on my walk, I went to the cheetah enclosure with the five tame beauties--Nikita, Afram, and the rest. I found two volunteers there with Luiki, a large male. He was drooling incredibly and I asked them if they'd noticed anything. They said he seemed to have something in his mouth that he kept working around.

I waited a minute and he yawned. Sure enough, there was something grayish in the top of his mouth, stuck. It looked sort of like a slab of chewing gum.

I don't recommend doing this with your neighborhood cheetah, but I felt these cheetahs--four of them, at least--trusted me because I spent enough time petting, grooming, and discussing politics with them. (Besides, the volunteers were watching me and I had to look like I was an authority or something.) So I put my hand in Luiki's mouth and worked a space between the roof of his mouth and the "thing" and tried to pull it out. It wouldn't budge.

The space was still there, though, so I took a short, flat stick and opened his mouth again. It was amazing: he seemed to understand that I was trying to help him. He could have bit off my fingers or hand, but he just made a sort of "mrrroowww."

I put the stick in between the thing and the top of his mouth. I yanked. Nothing. I tried it again. Nothing. On the third time (we were both getting annoyed), it popped out.

It was a flat piece of bone that had apparently gotten stuck when he was eating. He worked his jaw around a little, swallowed, and started to purr. I put my arms around his head and thanked him for not killing me.

It felt like that fairy tale, you know? The one with the guy who pulls the thorn out of the lion's paw and then the lion doesn't eat him later in life? I figure I get a free pass if I'm in the bush and a cheetah decides I'm dinner.

It made me feel good. Let alone how it made Luiki feel!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Meerkat Mania

Anybody who has ever watched Animal Planet has probably seen at least ads for their popular show Meerkat Manor.

And yes, they really ARE that cute in person.

One of ours here (a small male shown sitting on me in the lower picture) had a broken arm. You can see his cast on his left arm. He still managed to do what he needed to do, carrying that heavy thing around. The vet took it off finally and the arm is as good as new. He lives in an enclosure with two females.

Meerkats are related to the mongooses that run around on Harnas (more on them another day). They spend most of their time either sunning themselves to warm their bellies (like the picture on the top) or digging tunnels to burrow in. (Although they often just use and expand the burrows of ground squirrels that have been abandoned.)

Meerkats are great to have around the house because they eat all kinds of insects. In fact, when I was here before, I used to invite them into my bungalow so they would clean out all the corners of spiders, scorpions, and other insects. They're good guests, leaving the place better than when they found it.

They do have long sharp claws and razor teeth, though, so they can bite and scratch if you get them upset, but they're pretty sweet most of the time. I like to go into the meerkat enclosure, sit on the ground, and let them crawl up on me. After checking to make sure that I'm bug-free, they usually fall asleep--while making their little "brr, brr" chirping noises (kind of like the Tribbles on the old Star Trek show).

Watch out when they dig, though. They mean business--as in this video.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

morning flight

I had a fun adventure this morning. Schalk recently learned to fly a gyrocopter and bought one. He uses it to check the property--game counts, poacher watch, checking the fences and waterholes.

And he took me up this morning!

I hardly know how to describe it. As you can see in the picture, it's small and there are no doors. You sit, strapped in, and have full access to the open air. We flew pretty close to the ground in order to see things, so I got a good look.

We flew around about half of Harnas' 10,000 hectares (about 38 square miles, if my figuring is right). We saw herds of kudu, wildebeasts, springbok. We saw baboons, warthogs, zebras, giraffes (including the downed male). It gave me a new perspective on just how big Harnas is and how it's laid out.

I have to admit that I love flying--especially in small aircrafts that really give you the sense that you're flying, not like the big jumbo jets that don't feel any different usually than being in a house. This vehicle was amazingly stable. I thought it would be more battered around by the wind, but it felt secure and smooth. Schalk's take-off and landing were smooth, too. For a beginning pilot, he flys like a pro.

It makes me want to fly! Is this next on my list of adventures?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

the biggest and the smallest

Here on Harnas--as in the wild--life and death are close to the surface, unlike in the urban and suburban worlds where we like to keep ourselves separate from the gritty aspects of living, eating, and dying. With 400 animals living in approximately 38 square miles, both predator and prey, things happen. Animals come and animals go; birth and death.

Having said that, I have two sad deaths to report--one, especially, is hard because I just wrote a blog about him. DooDoo the owl was killed on Monday night by one of the 45-plus cats that live here. For 8 years, DooDoo has lived in Marieta's kitchen, but that night, a cat broke through one of her screens on a window, and in the morning Marieta found DooDoo's body. The volunteers buried him yesterday in the animal cemetery close to the lapa. As you can imagine, those who knew DooDoo are very upset, and Marieta claims if she finds the cat, he'll be joining DooDoo (but she doesn't mean it). The kitchen seems so quiet now, and in truth I miss the drama of wondering if he'll swoop by and grab some of my hair.

So one of the smallest is gone, and this week we also lost the largest animal on the property: the big, wild male giraffe. Apparently, during a storm he walked underneath a power line. The line was high enough not to hit him, but I was told that during storms, the electricity can spread out up to a meter in any direction. He was found dead the next day. He was enormous! I saw him just a few weeks ago at the end of the airstrip, and he was truly a giant. Klippie, a female and not fully grown, looks like a miniature giraffe next to him. He is too big to bury or move, so he will stay there until the other animals make use of his body. That's the way things go in the wild: an animal dies and others live because of--or in spite of--it.

I don't want to leave with a sad note, so let me give you some happy updates. Jessie and Coco are completely recovered from their injuries. They are jumping around like acrobats, swimming in the pool, and basically making mischief. I took Jessie for a few hours last night, and I'll include a short video of Jessie and me (and Pickles) hanging out on my bed.

The new caracal, Zinzi, is also adjusting. She let me pet her some last night--only hissing and striking out halfheartedly when I got too close to her belly or paws. And by the way, one of Harnas' best friends, Cornelia, pointed out in a comment that I wrote the former owner "unfortunately got married." Sorry about that! I swear it wasn't a Freudian slip! I meant it was unfortunate that she had to move to an apartment with her new husband BECAUSE it meant giving up her pet caracal. (I did laugh out loud, though, Cornelia!)

So literally, life goes on here at Harnas. And the loss of animals reminds me how precious and wonderful each moment is at this magical place.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

local color

I went to church yesterday. Some of you are now gasping, hand over mouth, worried about the people who attended with me. I can assure you there were no thunderbolts coming through the ceiling, and everyone walked away fine. Calm down, now.

In the past decade Marieta lost both her husband and oldest son, so she had a small, open-aired church built here on Harnas to honor them. It has a stone frame, tin roof, and simple wooden benches inside. It's really quite nice. Every Sunday at 11-ish (African time) the Bushmen gather there along with any volunteers who want to attend, Marieta, Frikkie, and anyone else who wants.

There's no director, but somehow they start singing. Of course, most of the Bushmen are illiterate, so they just do it from memory. It's really quite amazing. Then at some point a Bushman preacher gives a short sermon (translated line by line into English by Frikkie), then more singing. Then they load themselves back onto the trailer pulled by a tractor and sing all the way back to their village.

It's the only church I know of that allows animals in. As the singing began, Klippie the giraffe showed up, drawn by the noise of people (remember that she thinks she's a human), and she hung out for the whole time eating leaves off a tree to the side. I'll include a picture.

I filmed some of the singing. It's really great how they all sing parts without any music in front of them. Clapping, swaying, dancing around. It was very cool. (And again, no human or animal was injured in the making of this film.)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

a new caracal

Yesterday afternoon we had one of those sad/happy moments. A woman came to drop off her caracal, Zinzi, whom she had been keeping as a pet. Unfortunately, she got married and moved to an apartment where she can't keep her. So she brought Zinzi to us--and of course Marieta took her in. She never says no to an animal in need.

Caracals are closely related to the American lynx--big ol' cats around 45 pounds with tufted ears. They can be easily tamed if you have them from their birth, which means people take them in as pets. Never a good idea.

But we have another tame caracal, Tammy, who lives here with her friend, a tame African Wild Cat (irony noted) named Malcolm. We're hoping the three will become friends--in time. It takes awhile for cats to get used to each other, as anyone out there with a housecat knows. I got to spend a long time with Zinzi yesterday evening, though, and she eventually stopped hissing at me and let me pet her.

The thing I find most amazing about caracals is their ability to jump. Although they eat small ground rodents, they also jump up and catch birds in flight. You're doubting me, I can sense it. REALLY. As a matter of fact, I took a film of them jumping to catch their food. We have 7 wild ones and they get fed on the tour every day. Crazy cats.

Paula Devlin, you cat woman you, this one's for you.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Midnight Run--and Duck

I had an interesting encounter the night before last. Marieta is out of town for a few days on business, so I was sleeping with one of the baby 'boons (Marnus had the other). In the middle of the night, it became odorously clear that Jessie needed a new nappie (diaper), so I took my torch (flashlight) and walked across the courtyard to Marieta's kitchen where some were stored.

Halfway across her living room I got hit from above and behind, little thorns going into my scalp. I shouted (what I shouted doesn't matter, but be assured it was colorful), and ducked my head down. I saw a flash of gray swoosh by. I reached up--no blood, just my dignity in tatters.

It was a midnight attack by Doo Doo, the white-faced scops owl who lives in Marieta's kitchen. He's only about six inches tall but packs a powerful punch with those claws.

Doo Doo was rescued by some Bushmen who found him as a baby lying on the ground. They brought him to Marieta, who saved and raised him and then tried to free him. He wouldn't go. He likes Marieta's kitchen, perching on cupboard doors, curtain rods, and ceiling fans. And he likes his little bowl of raw meat he gets every day. So that's where he stays.

I'm going to include a short video so you can hear him. There's no "hoot hoot" from this guy. He "roars" like a tiny lion. Listen carefully and turn up the volume. The first, third, fifth, and sixth growls are me, trying to get him to talk. Listen carefully in between--the second and fourth ones. You'll see his feathers around his neck sort of fluff up as he does it.

He's hilarious--except when he divebombs you in the middle of the night. Very Hitchcock.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


I thought today I'd tell about a vervet monkey who lives here. Her name is Audrey. First of all, a few words on vervets: They're small and silvery-gray monkeys with a long tails and a black faces. (Males have blue private parts!) They climb like nobody's business and can sometimes be very aggressive (to make up for their size, I assume). Their teeth are like razors, and they love to bite ears, and the way they do it makes me suspect they're testing the humans to see if they can make them scream.

They can also be very naughty. When they escape their enclosure--running between your legs as you try to get out the gate--they are almost impossible to catch. Volunteers run around for hours, calling up to the branches, "Here, Etosha! Come come come!" When they get caught it's usually because someone snags their long tails.

Audrey is different, though. She was someone's pet, but the guy always kept her in a dark room--probably a basement. Then one day he decided to bring her into a sunny room without giving her eyes a chance to adjust. She went blind. Her eyes look sort of smokey blue--almost cataract-like.

So Audrey ended up here, safe in her own enclosure where she knows her way around. She can still bite like hell, but if she knows you--your voice, smell, and the fact that you're packing peanuts in your pockets--she'll respond positively.

So I visit Audrey quite often with the requisite peanuts. I call out her name and she will feel her way down a branch to meet me and take her bribe, so while she's eating I can pet her soft fur and hold her small human-ish hands.

A volunteer was around the last time I did it, so I had her film it. Watch how Audrey feels the peanut, smells it, and turns it around in her hands to orient herself to it.

Lots of different animals end up here--categories include injured, orphaned, former pets (like Audrey), and born on Harnas. The pets, I think, are saddest of all because people can be so unthinking. Sure--baby animals are really cute and cuddly, but what happens when they grow up and turn into the wild animals they're supposed to be--strong, aggressive, and needing lots of space and the companionship of their own species? They end up here--if they're lucky. If they're not, they end up being abandoned somewhere without the ability to hunt for their own food, or being put down by a vet.

Audrey was one of the lucky ones.

Monday, February 1, 2010

encounter with a giraffe

Nearly every morning I take a long walk. It's cooler than in the afternoon, the animals are usually close to the road awaiting their food, and I need to walk off all the good food they feed me (more on that another day).

Often I go by the lions' enclosures and have a chat with Elsa, the oldest female. She's a good listener and, even though she yawns frequently (what a sight!), I don't think I bore her too much.

Yesterday I didn't make it that far because as I passed one of the guest houses (Baloo), I saw Klippie, our friendly 2-year-old giraffe. (Her name means "stone" in Afrikaans, referring to the shape of the marks on her body.) She's often out where I can greet her, but this time she was sitting down, so she was about 5 feet more accessible.

I think the most dangerous part of a giraffe is her legs--which she can kick out if she is defending herself. She could also easily trample someone without really trying to or even noticing. But this time those legs were tucked under her nicely, giving me full and safe access to her head and neck.

I walked through the grass to reach her, calling her name to alert her that I was coming. She bowed her head and let me start scratching her nose, jaw, and neck. She bobbed her head a little and our eyes (one of hers, two of mine) came within an inch of each other. Hers are brown and huge and about the size of one of those big gumballs we all bought as kids. And her eyelashes are at least an inch long.

Then she did something wonderful: she put her whole head across my shoulder and rested it on me. And then she let out this sigh--kind of like a horse but more from her lungs than her nostrils. And she closed her eyes.

I spent the next 20 minutes rubbing her neck, her hair-covered horns, her jaw, under her chin, and her soft mouth. It was an encounter that left an immense mark on me. She completely trusted me and gave herself over to a good massage.

Of course I couldn't have taken a picture even if I had my camera with me. Her head was pretty heavy and had me rooted. So I just closed my eyes and tried to memorize every part of the experience so I could recreate it in my memory whenever I want. I'll include instead a short clip I took of her earlier when she was scratching her back and then gazing into the camera. It's these moments that make me fall in love with Harnas all over again.