Sunday, March 28, 2010

Final entry from Harnas

At first when I decided to do this blog, it was going to be about Harnas only, and when I left for my other two adventures, I would quit. Several people have suggested to me that I continue to write, though, so I think I'll do that.

If you want to hear about Harnas only, you can stop reading after this entry, but if you want to hear more of Barbara's World Tour 2010, read on. I'm heading to Thailand from here to be with my brother for 3 weeks. We'll be scuba diving and jungle trekking. We'll see sharks and other fish, elephants, monitor lizards, snakes, tigers, and monkeys--so the animal tales will continue. Everywhere I go, I seem to find animals. It's my Karma.

After that, I head to Borneo for 23 days. That's the place for orangutans, monkeys, dwarf elephants, bushbabies, crocodiles, and many many beautiful birds. I'll be jungle and river trekking into a place I've never seen but have always been curious about. My friend Amy, from Winston-Salem, NC--will be joining me for part of that, and I imagine we'll experience things people might be interested in.

I'm very sad to leave Harnas, even though three months is a relatively long time. The people are special to me, of course, but as always it's the animals that will tug on my heart. I've gotten used to spending part of each day lying around with cheetahs, playing with baboons, and talking to lions. And that's just the beginning of the animals I'll miss. My shadow Pickles--what a sweetie.

As a special treat on Saturday night, Frikkie took me and Annika out to hear the lions roar. One of the biggest and most vocal lions is Macho--father of twelve and very proud of it. He and Frikkie had a real conversation, and I recorded it. Listen carefully: Frikkie is telling Macho to "tell this American that you're angry she is leaving." Macho complies. But then Frikkie also points out that Macho is just pretending to be angry: you can tell by looking at his paw, which is tucked under him the way house cats do. Macho is a good actor.

Hope you enjoy the last Harnas video. I'll talk to you next from Bangkok. --Barbara

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Zion and Trust

When I was a volunteer here in Feb of 2007, the first lions I ever got to touch, walk, and fall in love with were a pair of brothers named Zion and Trust. I'll never forget that first time riding in the back of a truck with the year-old lions, bouncing around on the dirt roads, the lions stepping on my toes and pushing their heads into my face.

And Trust was the first lion ever to jump me, grabbing me around my waist with his huge paws and sliding down my legs with his teeth gently biting just hard enough to leave a bruise but not break the skin. You never forget your first lion "attack."

Now they're about 4 years old, out in an enclosure away from the farm, massive in size with nearly-full manes. And last night I got to spend a little time with them.

There's a young artist here named Annika Funke (see picture)--painter, poet, photographer--who is not only extremely talented but has a heart that animals respond to intensely. Last year when she was visiting, she literally fell in love with Trust and Zion (but especially Trust) and spent many nights sleeping outside their enclosure, painting, drawing, and more. Trust would slip his huge paw under the gate and the two would hold "hands" while they slept. A connection is between them that is hard to describe, but I got to see it a little last night.

Around 4:30 yesterday afternoon I saw Marieta and her granddaughter Nica in the golf cart going somewhere. I asked if I could go along (always fun). Then we picked up Annika at the gate. We visited the vervet monkey enclosure to inspect some work going on there, and then I tentatively asked Marieta, "Can we go visit Zion and Trust?"

Off we zoomed, both Annika and I with bright expectant eyes and smiles on our faces. Once we were there, Annika pushed it further, "Can we stay for awhile?" Marieta nodded and took off with Nica, leaving us outside the gate with the two lions pushing and rubbing and trying to get to us, but not to hurt us.

Zion and Trust tolerated me just fine. I got to pet them through the fence while they rubbed their magnificent heads into my hands. But Annika! I know I'm a writer and should be able to describe what happened, but I think it's beyond words. Trust immediately recognized her from last year, practically bent in the fence trying to reach her hand and kisses. Then he lay down next to the fence and they pressed up against each other--all the while "talking" to each other in this magical language lions have.

After a couple of hours, the sun began to set in one of the most colorful and dazzling sunsets I've seen as we began our walk back to the farm. Then all the lions on Harnas began their nightly roaring to each other, marking their territories by signaling to all the other lions where each is. Roaring came from every side and we just had to stand there in the orange and pink light and listen and listen and listen.

I thought about trying to tape it, but it's impossible to record the sound because you not only hear it, you FEEL it in your chest. It's deep and rumbling and like a physical force that enters your heart. Instead I'll include a short clip of Zion and Trust with Marieta, Frikkie, and me in January just so you can see how massive they are--and loving.

It's magical moments like this that fill my memories of Harnas. The things you don't plan for--they just happen, and when they're over I say, "No matter what happens in my life, I'll always have that."

Friday, March 26, 2010

Animal Orphanage

I've talked a lot about the lions, cheetahs, and other more exciting animals here at Harnas, but there are baby animals everywhere--of every kind. Harnas is recognized as one of the few official orphanages for animals, and Marieta has certainly earned that recognition.

At any given time, there are babies of many species. Right now we have two baby lambs--Lily and Lambert. That's me in the picture (on a rainy day) feeding Lambert a bottle. His umbilical cord is still attached to him, but it's hard to see. The other one, Lily, struggled for a few days. She got milk in her lungs, and in a heroic move, Frikkie put Lily's whole face in his mouth and sucked everything out of her lungs. Not pretty, but it did the trick, and now Lily is improving. Animals come first--despite what some people might describe as a gross-out action.

We've also got some baby chicks, baby cows and horses, baby springboks--and many other antelope-type animals like kudu, eland, oryx, baby mongooses (so cute, but with razor teeth), crocodiles, and baby warthogs. I'll include a video of those last creatures--one of the weirdest but most interesting animals around--I think George Lucas looked at warthogs before he created the famous bar scene in Star Wars. And finally, of course, baby baboons. I'll include one picture of playtime in Barbara's clothes hamper--with diaper on and pacifier attached.

It's hard to find an ugly baby animal. I think they've evolved this way to make sure that their mothers say, "Ohhhh! How cute! I think I'll dedicate my life to taking care of you!" Makes sense to me.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mother of the Year

I know it's not Mother's Day yet, but I've already chosen the Mother of the Year here at Harnas. The lioness named Simba and her mate Macho (probably the largest male on the farm right now) are the proud parents of not one, not two, but THREE litters of FOUR cubs each in the past two years.

That's TWELVE for those math-challenged people. Clearly, it's happy marriage between Simba and Macho.

It also helps that it only takes 110 days from conception to birth for a lion. Like house cats, they can breed quickly and often. Most of the time at Harnas, cubs are removed from the mother when they're born because the male sometimes kills them to bring the mother back into heat. With lions so endangered, that's a tragedy that needs to be avoided.

The four male lions known as The Brothers were the first litter, but as I wrote once before, one of them died. They're less than two years old.

Then came the litter of four siblings we call The Babies--a sure misnomer these days. The litter has two males and two females.

Then came the litter of four that Martha, seen above, came from--I think 2 males and 2 females again. Only Martha is tame (and that's not exactly accurate either, since she's what you would call a moody girl. Yesterday she tried to eat my head, but she only got a fistful of my hair.).

The other three cubs are still with Simba, and visitors get to see them every day on the morning feeding tour. Macho is always waiting at the fence for his morning meat, so Etosha, the guide, feeds him first to keep him busy while he feeds the mom and cubs.

The mother and youngsters usually aren't waiting at the fence, so Etosha calls them. It's a wonderful sight to see Simba moving toward us through the grass with her three cubs scampering after her, jumping on each other, and wrestling their way to the fence.

The three are getting big now--not the size of their mother yet, but certainly twice as big as when I first got here at the beginning of January. They're still kids, though, and love to play with each other and their mother. Simba is a great mother. She lets them "attack" her and even steal her food. Their welfare is her first priority.

And for those of you who are worried about this fertile mama, she has an implant now to keep her from getting pregnant again. Macho seems to have accepted the babies for now and hasn't hurt them. We keep a close eye on them, though, because the behavior of males--even the father of the cubs--is unpredictable.

So here's a clip of Simba and the kiddies enjoying their meal. Notice the cub who steals his mother's food at the end and prances away with his prize. (It's half a donkey head, for those who are wondering. That's nature.) They maybe bigger now, but they're still adorable. Wouldn't you love one in your house or back yard?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Baboon Lullaby

Every night at around 8:30 or 9:00, I go to Marieta's house and help her with the final bottle feeding and diapering of the four baby baboons. The two oldest, Coco and Jessie, are a piece of cake. They're used to it, can't wait for their bottle, and tolerate the diapering nicely. So I do those first.

Then come the two newest arrivals, Bobbie and Annie. They're still quite wild and don't like to be held too much. They resist--and I mean RESIST--diapering. Once the diapers are on, they're fine, but the process is quite strenuous, to say the least.

Some basic information--for those of you who don't normally diaper baboons as a part of your daily life: First you must create a hole through the diaper for the tail. (I used to use scissors, but Marieta called me a rookie, so now I bite a hole through the diaper with my teeth, Rambo-style, just like she does.) Then you must thread the tail through the hole, putting the diaper on BACKWARDS because otherwise the baboons will pull them off in record time. The fasteners must be behind them so they can't figure out how to take it off. Got it? Sounds easy, right?

Not so fast, my friend.

I decided this experience must be documented, especially since I don't have children and therefore haven't changed thousands of diapers in my life. Mom, are you watching? I am, I admit proudly, pretty good at baboon diapering.

At least some of the time.

Lately, Marieta and I have had to do Bobbie and Annie together. They scream. They fight. They act like we're tearing their hearts out. Usually one of us holds the arms and legs and the other works the diaper. But tonight, for the sake of art--and by art, I mean my blog--I decided to do it myself and have Marieta film me. Jo and Schalk were there as witnesses (actually, Jo was giving Marieta a pedicure) which turned out to be handy because I needed Schalk at a crucial time. As you'll see.

The first baby boon, Bobbie--who is usually the wildest--went like a breeze. It took only 58 seconds to put the diaper on from start to finish, according to my film. I was thinking World Record, Olympics, Baboon Hall of Fame.

And then came Annie.

Well, she was just a bit harder. But still, if you watch the time, it took less than 2 minutes--with an assist by Schalk. It only seems longer because of the screaming--Annie's, not mine. Not exactly ready for Professional Baboon Wrangling, but definitely in contention for the Amateur league. Don't believe me? Just try it yourself.

And no one got pooped on, peed on, or bitten. That's a winner in my book.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


By now some of you are wondering, "Hey, how can I get a piece of this action?" (The rest of you are muttering, "Hey, how crazy IS Barbara?")

Well, of course, you can always come to Harnas as a guest and stay in one of the bungalows. You'd get to take the feeding tours, see lots of wild animals, and even touch a few. But because of liability issues that always rear their ugly heads--even in Namibia--guests have limited contact with the wild animals. But for many people, that's okay. Petting a tame cheetah, playing with baby warthogs and jackals, maybe holding a baby baboon might be enough for you.

But if you want the real deal, getting dirty and involved, working harder than you've ever worked before and loving it--then you should consider becoming a volunteer.

Most of the volunteers are between 18-30, but Harnas also has special weeks set aside twice a year for "Mature" volunteers--the over-40 crowd. (Not to imply that the other volunteers are "immature.") They've also had sessions exclusively for couples who want to come together.

As a volunteer, you stay in a cabin with three other people, sleep on a cot, eat with the other volunteers, and work in groups to prepare food, feed animals, clean enclosures, take walks with animals, and do what is called "farm work"--which includes anything from picking up bones from the Wild Dog enclosures to raking weeds to putting up fences. You'll sweat and bleed and get great satisfaction for doing more physical work than you've probably done in a long time--if ever.

It's how I started at Harnas. I was definitely in the "mature" category, but back in 2007 there wasn't a special session for us Oldies. I just worked alongside the 20-somethings. Sure I had to go to bed earlier so that I could maintain my energy level, but it was worth every drop of sweat.

One of the things that a volunteer group did recently was empty, clean, and refill one of the big waterholes in a baboon enclosure. I watched these guys at work--and play (because, let's face it, it's hard not to stop work and play with baboons every once in a while--especially when they jump on you, swing from you, and generally drag you into their games).

They worked hard all day emptying the hole and scrubbing it out. The real fun began when they started filling it again. Baboons love water. They jump in it, swim in it, slide into it, drink from the hose, and act just like we all did when we were kids playing in the front yard sprinklers.

The sense of accomplishment the volunteers felt at the end of the day was palpable--something you don't feel after winning a video game, watching sports, or just hanging out, as so many people spend their time doing these days. This was old-fashioned work, and there was plenty of old-fashioned pride to go around when the deed was done. They all took pictures of their work. When was the last time that you felt so proud of something you had done that you wanted a picture to remember it? (Yeah, let's take a picture of that report for work. How about a photo of your tax forms all filled out?)

And the real sense of accomplishment came when they saw how the animals appreciate what they had done, such as the baboon in this clip enjoying a leisurely swim--and then a not-so leisurely run around the enclosure (where you can see all their "toys").

Volunteers can stay from 2 weeks to 3 months. But no matter how long they stay, they all say the same thing: Harnas changes them in good ways they never imagined.And with their good work, they help Harnas.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Teeth of a Lion

Taking a lion walk is exceptional enough: walking through knee-high savanna grass in 95 degree heat, watching for snakes and other non-fun creatures, bumping up against lions as they run past you and jump on each other--and sometimes you. It's a wonderful way to spend a few hours in Africa.

And if you get Frikkie to lead the group, it's even more wonderful. He knows his way around. And he knows lions.

On Wednesday, I had not just one of this experiences, but two. In the morning, Frikkie took out the newest volunteers who had never been up close and personal with lions. We went with the four 14 month olds and the 6 month old, Martha. He told the vols the rules--don't run, don't scream, don't overhandle the lions--and we headed out. Some of the newbies looked nervous and stayed as far away as possible from the roaming lions.

Cornelia, Willi, and I were allowed to go along with the four volunteers. Frikkie probably had it all worked out before hand with the lions--I wouldn't put it past him--because 10 minutes into the walk, one of the babies decided to test me.

I was walking along with the sun to the right and back of me. I heard a slight rustle and looked left just in time to see my shadow--and a perfect silhouette of a lion flying through the air toward my back. I had just enough time to brace myself so I wouldn't fall down and look like weak prey. Instead the lion wrapped his paws around my arms and chest and put his teeth around my upper left arm.

I didn't scream. I didn't run. I didn't fall. I just stood there, reached around and smacked him in the face and said "nea, nea" (no, no) and pushed him off me--all 200 pounds of him. Frikkie laughed and pointed out that it was the right way to handle an attack. I think it was both good and frightening for the new vols. I'm glad it was me and not one of them for the first attack of the day.

I might add that a few minutes later, Martha jumped Cornelia--and she screamed, ran, and fell down. She laughs and claims that she was serving as a bad example to my good one--so the volunteers could see the difference.

So as you can see in the picture above, the teeth marks (in the perfect arch of the lion's mouth) didn't penetrate the skin--just left a bruise. That tells me it was all in fun. He could have snapped my arm off in one bite, but he was just having a good time. No real harm done. After the walk, I counted only three wounds that were bleeding--a good average when walking the 5 crazy youngsters.

After a few hours of this, we returned to the farm, unloaded the cats, and ate lunch. I fell asleep for about an hour and then got up for the second walk with the 3 bigger Brothers. I felt really tired for some reason, but I wouldn't miss this for anything.

This time we went with Frikkie, his son, and his new daughter-in-law (a very brave young woman who had never been to Harnas).

The Gentlemen Lions were well behaved--no jumping, no biting--just lots of head rubbing and body bumping. No blood. Lots of good pictures for the newlyweds.

Part way through each walk I offered the lions a drink from my water bottle, as did Cornelia. They're used to this because Frikkie often shares his water with them. I stuck the neck of the bottle into a mouth and poured. They lapped it up. And they stood in line for more. When there's a line-up of three big lions asking for water, it's not a good idea to say "no." So on both walks, Cornelia and I ran out of water before we barely got a sip. But it's okay because the lions were taken care of.

That night I felt sooooo tired. I couldn't believe it. Yes, the lion walks were exhausting, the temperature neared 100, I didn't have water--but it seemed worse than it should be. I know I'm old, but come on!!! Everything hurt and I could barely keep my eyes open through dinner.

The answer came a few hours after I went to bed: shivering, sweating, fever, and muscle aches. I have a virus. So I spent all day yesterday sleeping in bed, and today I feel weak but a bit better. With less than 2 weeks to go at Harnas, though, I hated losing a whole day to sickness.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Heart of Darkness--REAL Darkness

Forget about lions and leopards and snakes. Or even being chased by a lunatic giraffe (which she did again yesterday when Cornelia and I were out walking with 2 dogs. Schalk had to rescue us in his truck.)

One of the scariest experiences is going back to your bungalow on a dark night when you've forgotten your flashlight.

It happened to me once a couple of years ago when I was staying out in a far-away house. There was no moon. Do you know how dark it can be when the closest town in 1 1/2 away? You hear cliches like "can't see your hand in front of your face" or "black as pitch" but they're cliches for a reason: they're true.

I was returning from a night of merriment at Jo's house and headed across the grass, thinking it wasn't going to be difficult at all because I have a good sense of direction. Then everything seemed turned around and I was walking not on mown lawn but in high grass and tripping over stones. When I finally ran full into a large cross, I figured out I had wandered into the animal cemetery and was tripping over graves. I wandered for about 15 minutes before I was able to find the bridge leading to my house. I laugh now, but it's reaaaalllly scary not to know where you are when there could be any number of wild animals who know EXACTLY where you are.

A similar situation--but worse--happened to Willi the other night, who is seen above during one of his braver moments.

We were having a movie night at Jo's house (Julie and Julia with Meryl Streep) and after awhile Willi decided to go home, smoke a pipe, and relax rather than endure a chick flick that was in English (German is his first language). Like a good husband, he left his flashlight for his wife Cornelia. Then he left.

Almost two hours later I was in Marieta's house, feeding bottles to baboons, when Cornelia came rushing in. Willi wasn't at the house, wasn't with Schalk, wasn't with Frikkie. He was missing.

A search ensued with Schalk bringing out a spot light that could light up half of Africa. They searched and searched.

And there he was--knee-deep in the duck pond, confused, lost, and pretty mad at himself.

He had lost his way without any lights, wandered around for several hours. He hoped he wouldn't accidentally run into a snake, warthog, lion, leopard, giraffe, ostriche, or any number of creatures that would make his experience even worse. We were especially glad it was the duck pond and not the crocodile enclosure he fell into.

In the light of day, we all laughed and joked and looked at the beautiful surroundings that are Harnas and wondered how they could be scary. But at night, a different world emerges. If you want to know what it feels like, turn off all your lights, blindfold yourself, and then stand in a dark closet. Twirl around a few times. Try to identify which way is north.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

All Babies Grow UP

When I was last here, in December of 2008, there were four new little lion cubs that had been born in September of that year. That's me in the picture holding Brad (named after Brad Pitt--You can imagine how all the women wanted a picture hugging Brad).

But all babies grow up. Fortunately, Brad and his two brothers (one, unfortunately, died when his intestine was punctured by a bone he swallowed) have grown into sweet, gentlemanly lions who are called by all "The Brothers."

Since Willi and Cornelia have arrived, I've spent much more time with the Brothers since Willi loves them as much as I do--and it's always good to go into their enclosure with another person. (Even though they're very tame, if they decided to "play" by pouncing on me, being alone wouldn't be a good thing.)

So every day Willi and I go into the enclosure and give the Brothers some serious loving--hugging, petting, and even kissing them on the nose. I know some of you out there are saying, "Barb's finally lost it," but those who have been at Harnas know what an amazing thing it is to be close to a giant carnivore, especially ones as serene and dignified as these boys.

Eventually--when they get sexually mature--male lions pretty much become unapproachable. They kick and roar and generally get all crazed when humans come into their territory (like in one of my earliest blogs about Sher Kahn). But right now I love to take advantage of the sweetness of these wonderful lions. It's a memory I'll take with me forever.

And now a word from our sponsor: The book I've written on Marieta and Harnas, SOUL OF A LION, is already on a preorder. When I received word of this from National Geographic, I went to the website and found it. I can't tell you how thrilled and proud I felt to be officially part of the Harnas family. Since I'm donating half my profits back to Marieta, I can feel good about saying I hope the book sells a million copies. This place deserves to be noticed and supported. Think:Christmas Gifts!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

New Arrivals

We got some new baby baboons the other day. A farmer near the Botswana border caught the pair (two females) in a trap, called Harnas for help rather than shooting them, and then Frikkie and Sissel went to pick them up.

They're very young--smaller by far than Coco and Jessie. As you can see in the picture, one even still has a pink face--which they only have when they're babies. Then it turns black.

Pretty wild still. We've only had them one day, so they haven't got used to humans holding them and feeding them with bottles.

The big news is that, for the first time, Marieta suggested that we name them after ME. That's right, people out there, there are now TWO animals on Harnas named after Yours Truly.

At first I resisted because "Barbara" isn't exactly a cute name for a baboon, but then I remembered that my grandfather on my father's side used to call me Bobbie. I always liked that and kind of wished other people would use that nickname, but that just didn't work out. So the one with the pink face is named Bobbie. (It's also cute because the Afrikaans name for baboon is "bobbejaan"--pronounced "Bob-ee-yon"--so it's a bobbejaan named Bobbie.)

I told Marieta that she should choose the other name but she said she was exhausted from naming animals and that I should name the second one to kind of match the first. So in a total fit of egocentric behavior, I used my middle name, Anne. (No Beach Boys jokes, please.) So the second one, with the blacker face, is named Annie.

So far they act a lot like me--they're totally uncivilized, scream a lot, refuse to do what others want, and bite when they get mad. But Marieta and I are going to work with them a lot today and get them used to our touch. Tonight she and I will each take two of the four babies for sleeping. I'm so glad that Marieta trusts me enough to let me help.

What fun to work with baby animals! By 8:00 yesterday morning, I had already been peed and pooped on twice! Classic Harnas.

The Stealthiest Hunter in Africa

Lions mainly catch their prey with sheer strength (and sometimes numbers). Cheetahs depend on their speed. But leopards--ah, leopards--are the stealthiest and most cunning big cat in Africa.

If given the chance, I'd much rather face a wild lion than a wild leopard. Marieta says she "believes in lions" because they always tell you how they're feeling and warn you if you should move away (which you probably should--slowly and without turning your back). You might be able to talk your way out of an encounter with a lion--raising your arms to make yourself bigger, talking to the lion and telling him that you're a human (which isn't very tasty) and not an impala (which is).

But leopards--ah, leopards. You'll never know a leopard is stalking you until you feel its teeth slipping into you neck. If you're lucky, you might have time to admire this sleek predator before you die.

Their main problem facing their existence is that they are TOO beautiful and the pelts are TOO thick and velvety. Selfish women want to wear them as coats--unlike the lion and cheetah, who have pelts that are rather coarse (although this doesn't stop hunters from wanting them as rugs or wall hangings).

Leopards live solitary lives, so nearly all the leopards at Harnas are all in separate enclosures. They only come together for mating in the wild. They hunt at night (which is one reason cheetahs hunt during the day) and they often drag their prey up into a tree so they can eat, leave for awhile, and then return to finish the meal. All in all, they're extremely dangerous--in the wild or in captivity.

But then there's Missy Jo. Missy Jo was raised at Harnas, mainly by a woman from Germany named Ulla--who has been a long time friend and visitor at Harnas. (Ulla, if you're reading this, feel free to make comments or corrections at the end of this blog. I want to get the story straight.) From the beginning, Missy Jo was different. She even slept with Ulla in her bungalow when she was little, a good house guest who didn't pee in the bed but used the shower instead.

Now Missy Jo is in an enclosure in the outer areas of Harnas, and the guests on the tour each day get to see her. Although she might still be tame enough to visit, it's risky so she remains solitary, BUT she is the only leopard who comes to the fence, rubs herself against it, "talks" to the visitors, and begs for a scratching.

A few people, though, can pet her through the fence including Frikkie, Ulla, Willi (one of my German friends that I picked up at the airport this week), and me! (Although I have to say that I'm extremely careful as you can see in the picture at the top of this page.)

Willi, his wife Cornelia, and I went on a long walk yesterday--we actually did the tour route but on foot rather than in the truck. When we got to Missy Jo, she came running when we called, sort of growled her greeting and talked to us in this strange cat language (listen to the video carefully and you can hear her). It was heavenly. I could have stayed there all day and felt that thick, velvet fur.

Ulla--tell us more if you're out there! You have so many stories about her.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Frikkie the Lion Man

I haven't talked enough about Frikkie von Solms, Marieta's cousin and the director of the Volunteer Program. Frikkie is unlike anybody I've ever met. He brings to mind all the old cliches: tough as nails being the most accurate. He's built like a piece of beef jerky but he's not as tender.

Every volunteer who comes here (and every guest, too) is changed somehow by Frikkie. They see him as a father figure or a slave driver, but it's hard to get away from Frikkie the same as before you met him.

Two of his favorite lines that the volunteers hear from him are (1) Run like hell! (He hates dawdlers) and (2) I might kill you, but you will learn!

One of his most amazing character traits is his unbelievable bond with animals--especially lions. He says he understands people better because he understands animals--or maybe it's the other way around. I get confused. But whatever--he will "get" you before anybody else does.

Recently I went on a lion walk with the "Babies"--four not-so-small lions who are not-so-well-behaved because they are youngsters still. They love to go OUT on the walk, but when it's time to get back into the truck, they are often--well, let's just say they're reluctant. And it's no easy feat to convince lions to do anything they don't want to do.

So they were behind us humans in the group, straggling far behind us, actually, so we had to keep calling "Come! Come! Come Lions!" They ambled along.

Suddenly, the truck approached us to take us all back to the enclosure. The lions became even more reluctant. UNTIL, out the of the car stepped Frikkie.

Let me just say that it isn't just Frikkie who loves the lions. It is a mutual adoration society. They LOVE him. They, like the volunteers, are drawn to this man. They heard his voice. They saw his stick-thin silhouette against the sunset.

And they came bounding toward him--four lions at over 200 pounds each.

By the time I could get the camera out, they were all over him, giving him the only kind of loving a lion knows how to give--a gentle mauling. And nobody loved it more than Frikkie.

Admit it: you wish it was YOU under all those pelts.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Letting Go

One animal I haven't talked about yet is very close to my heart, Fighter, the semi-wild cheetah youngster. When I got here two months ago, I was told that she had been the only survivor of a group including a mother cheetah and her three cubs. Thus, the name--she's a survivor. She stays in the enclosure closest to the lapa, the one you have to walk through to get to the very tame cheetahs Pride, Cleo, Duma, and Goeters.

But because she's kind of wild and hisses rather than purrs at pretty much everyone, most people choose just to walk through the enclosure, keeping far away from her.

But I took her on as a project. She was only 8 months at that time, still had her extra tufts of hair on her neck and back. It took two weeks for her to stop hissing at me--and occasionally swiping her claws at me. I would go in virtually every day and sit as close to her as possible. When she'd settle down and look uninterested in me, I'd move a little closer. More hissing. I'd wait. When she's settle down again, I'd move a few inches closer. Repeat again and again.

After two weeks I was sitting by her, petting her gently, and talking to her. And although she tolerated me and my stroking, she basically refused to purr. Three times, though, she forgot herself and began a soft purring, but then she seemed to realize she was letting me get too close to her, and she'd stop.

Finally, just 10 days ago, she started trusting me enough to purr--and she's been doing so every day now with me. She doesn't run to me when I enter the enclosure, but when she sees me, she lies down and arranges herself to I can pet her and groom her with my doggie brush. And then the gentle purr.

It was a triumph.

I've found that nothing comes closer to meditation for me than sitting silently with a cheetah. I've tried traditional meditation, but can't seem to do it. I end up making mental grocery lists or trying to remember all the words to "American Pie."

But with a cheetah, the simple motion of stroking their lithe bodies, scratching around the face gently, and focusing on the purr brings me to a place where I completely forget myself. It becomes just the cheetah, the African breeze, and a sense of peace. Fighter finally became part of that for me.

Then this week, I found out that Fighter is going to be moved to one of the outer enclosures with some other semi-wild cheetahs. My twice-a-day visits to her will end, and she will become what she's supposed to be: a strong and independent creature.

Any of you who really know me can figure out how this hit me. I mean, I'm the woman who talks to every squirrel she meets, names the deer in my backyard woods, and takes doggie treats to other people's houses instead of a bottle of wine.

I was devastated. At first I tried every argument I could to convince Schalk and Marieta and Frikkie that Fighter should stay where she is. But a new friend from Norway, Sissel, gently reminded me that this should be about Fighter's best interest, not mine.

I made a mental list of positives for Fighter: (1) She'll be freer. (2) She'll have lots more room to stretch her legs and run. (3) The whole point of Harnas is to release animals if we can.

This is my head talking, but the heart is another matter. In bed the other night, I had a small meltdown. I hadn't realized how much I had bonded with this sweet cheetah until I thought about losing her. I thought she was a project; instead, she was my friend. I cried and Pickles licked away my tears. It wasn't one of my stronger or braver moments here in Africa.

Do you remember watching animal shows in which an animal is saved, rehabilitated, and then set free? Remember the tears in the eyes of the people who send that eagle or lion or dolphin back to the wilderness? They always seemed like such happy and noble tears. But now I know they're not. Instead of feeling noble, I just feel like someone is tearing out a little piece of my heart.

I'm going to Windhoek today, spending the night, and then picking up some German friends--Cornelia and Willi-- from the airport in the morning and bringing them back to Harnas. When I return tomorrow afternoon, Fighter will probably be in her new space, too big to find her easily and becoming more wild by the day. So I went in her enclosure this morning as usual and said my good-byes. I told her she'd have space and some friends (five other cheetahs) and enjoy life as she should. She'll be happier, I said. She purred.

Now I just have to convince myself.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

thundering herd

Once in a while, I'll get up in the morning and think "I don't have much to write about in my blog today," so I'll take a walk. That usually does it. The slogan here is "Expect the Unexpected," and that's what usually happens.

Saturday morning I decided to walk out to the new enclosure where the two tame caracals, Zinzi and Tammy, live, so Pickles (of course) and I set off down the airstrip in that general direction.

Have you ever just known someone is behind you? I did, and I turned around. Sauntering up behind us was Klippie the giraffe. She often does this on my walks, just follows for awhile, waiting for a good neck and face massage from me, so I wasn't alarmed, even though it IS a bit startling to find a 2,000 pound, 15-foot tall creature stalking me soundlessly.

I called her name and approached her, reached up to pet her, and then turned around and got on with the walk. She followed--a bit closer than she usually does. I sped up a little; so did she. Then Pickles and I went around a bend in the dirt road and lost sight of her. Then I heard it: ba da DUM, ba da DUM, ba da DUM. Thundering hooves behind me, coming up fast!

"Pickles! Hide!" I screamed, and we both jumped behind a big bush. Klippie game galloping up behind us, kicking up dirt and barely missing the bush. Then she stopped and stared at me.

We talked and I asked her in not-so-polite terms just what she was doing. She sauntered off, her game finished for the time being. Pickles and I set off again.

Two minutes later: ba da DUM, ba da DUM! Here she came again. "Dive, Pickles, Dive!" and we ended up behind a small tree--full with thorns, of course.

What was going on? She continued to pace in front of us, not allowing us back on the road. She pretended not to be looking at us, but she was definitely holding us hostage. After a few minutes of more questions and exclamations from me, I picked up Pickles--all 15 pounds of her--and backed away and finally found our way back to the road.

Klippie followed at an even pace. I walked backwards up the road in order to keep an eye on her this time, glancing over my shoulder to look for snakes-that-look-like-sticks and sticks-that-look-like-snakes.

Twice more Klippie ran at us, and twice more we had to hide behind bushes or trees. Bit by bit I headed toward the lion enclosures in hopes that the smell of lion would keep her away. Then I heard voices and we made a break for it, running headlong through the bushes, Pickles pressed to my chest, both of us hoping I would find help before Klippie ran us over.

I came crashing out of the bushes right into the middle of the morning tour group--guests, volunteers, and the guide Etosha who were stopped outside Sher Khan's enclosure, enjoying their morning snack of biscuits and tea in the civilized British way.

Everyone stopped to stare at this crazy girl and dog emerging from the bush, scratched, gasping for breath, and calling for help.

"Etosha!" I called. "Klippie's trying to kill us!"

With perfect timing, Klippie came barreling out of the trees at full speed and skidded to a halt when she saw all the people. And did the guests try to help me? Of course not--they were clicking their cameras as fast as they could. But Etosha waved me over to hide behind him and said, "It might be Pickles. Klippie doesn't like small dogs."

That stopped me. It hadn't occurred to me that it might be Pickles that the giraffe was trying to kill. I handed Pickles to Etosha, walked back to Klippie and put out both arms as I do to indicate wanting to cuddle. Klippie happily dropped her head down and nuzzled her soft hairy lips on my forehead--friends again.

With lions on one side and a deranged and jealous (?) giraffe on the other, Pickles was--yes--in a pickle, so we got a ride halfway home on the tour truck.

Even though it's funny to me now, I think I was more worried about that giraffe than I've ever been with a lion or cheetah. And every once in a while something like this happens that reminds me how powerful these creatures are, and no matter how tame they seem, they still have the ability to squash out my life without even meaning to.

As the dog and I crossed the bridge toward the lapa, I turned and looked back. There was Klippie, emerging from behind one of the guest houses, just nibbling gently on the camelthorn trees.

I thought, "Okay, if I were eaten by a lion or attacked by a leopard, that would be one thing. People would 'ooh' and 'ahh' over my death. Who knows? It might even be good for the sales of my book about Harnas. But to be trampled by a giraffe? That just lacks dignity. That is the stuff of black humor and puns. No--that maniac giraffe cannot be the end of me."

Friday, March 5, 2010

Bat-eared Foxes

One of the animals that you've probably never heard about or seen unless you've been at Harnas or in southern Africa is the bat-eared fox. They're only 3-5 kg or about 7-11 pounds.

We have three adults here--name He Re and Ro in honor of the Herero people who live in the area, some of which work and live at Harnas. From the three came a litter of six pups who are nearly grown now.

As you can see from this photo, the most obvious thing about them is their ridiculously big ears and cute pointy noses. The ears, though, are very practical. Their hearing is so keen that they can hear insect larvae (their favorite meal) underground so they can dig it up and have supper! They also eat things we don't want around like scorpions, termites, and locusts--and they DON'T eat sheep or lambs (which farmers mistakenly believe and so shoot them).

During the day they stay cool in their underground tunnels they dig over near the staff quarters--where I hang my laundry. The adults are extremely tame and allow people to bury their hands in their long fluffy hair. The pups usually let me get close and then bolt. This is how I know they're the non-tame ones.

Last night, after chasing down one of the jackals pups and returning her to the garden area (we can't figure out how she's getting out, but it was the second time yesterday I found her out on the lawn), I was sitting on the deck with some people in the early dark, and Marieta started to make this "LALALALALALALALA" singing sound.

No, she isn't crazy--or maybe she is, but this didn't prove it. Around the corner scampered the 9 bat-eared foxes--who roam the lawn area at night. They know that sound means cookies! They love these cookies that she throws them (well, to be honest, so do I, but I resisted fighting with the foxes for the bits and pieces).

I know it's dark, but watch closely when they come into the light. See their big ears and their skinny legs. (Actually, their legs aren't that skinny compared to their bodies, but their hair is sooo thick that it makes them look much larger than they are.)

Once they have their fill, they disappear with their big ears into the night.

So many amazing creatures that I never knew existed live here at Harnas. I would never have dreamed that I would be playing with jackals, grooming cheetahs, and petting bat-eared foxes in my lifetime, but here I am. Once the foxes had gone last night, I couldn't help but sit back and wonder at the life I'm leading. Sometimes being here, it's easy to get lost in the everyday, but in moments like last night I'm reminded how lucky I am--and how happy this place makes me.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Easy Rider

Near Swakopmund the sand dunes come down right to the sea. This is the Hollywood desert--dune after dune of sugary sand with very little vegetation.

On the second morning at Swakopmund, Marieta, her two granddaughters (Morgan 12, Nica 6) and I went quad biking on the dunes. It was great fun, even if there weren't animals involved. Here's a picture of me coming down one of the higher dunes. Believe me, it was steeper than it looks here. One young woman who rode with us went down too fast, flipped off it, and landed hard. The sand is forgiving, though, so she only went away with sore ribs and a bit of disgrace.

We rode for about three hours, the guided stopping occasionally to show us interesting things in the desert--remnants of tribal grass houses, fossilized animal prints on a mud flat, a burial ground with some skeletons exposed. He made us eat things in the desert that were edible (but no good, although if you were starving, I guess they would taste better), and he showed us where we could find water under the sand. Interesting stuff!

Back on Harnas, we've had the addition of two jackal pups--named Jack and Jill. They arrived from a man who had rescued them and kept them as pets. They even slept in his bed. So they're exceedingly tame, just like puppies.

These are specifically Black-backed Jackals--found throughout southern Africa. They don't get very big--no more than 25 pounds or 12 kg when they're fully grown. They're scavengers and farmers don't like them because they eat their lambs, and so they're often shot just for existing.

It's a bad rap, though, because mostly jackals eat small ground mammals--squirrels, rats, mice--and keep those populations in check. Also, they eat fruit and insects. There's even a berry that's called Jackal Berry because they love it.

Jack and Jill came to us when the owner decided they needed a more natural habitat--although by that time they were too tame to be let back into the wild. So after a few days quarantine to make sure they were healthy, Marieta released them in the garden area where they play with people, sniff everything (they have an acute sense of smell), and sneak looks at the vervet monkeys and baboons that are in the enclosures lining the garden.

If you approach Jack, he immediately rolls over as if to ask, "While you're here, would you mind rubbing my belly?" Jill is a little more wary, but she, too, loves to be stroked. They're soft and sweet, but the teeth are quite sharp--and like puppies, they love to chew.

They've become an immediate favorite, and no one who comes into the garden area can resist their charms. Here they are with Kate, a volunteer from the UK who is also a vet nurse.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Lala update and more

First an update on Lala, the Miracle Dog: Tuesday morning Lala started to regain control of her tongue and legs (her tail was already going) since the venom had paralyzed her muscles. By 11:00, her tongue was controlled enough to drink from a bowl, and she was struggling to sit upright. When I left the clinic at noon, she struggled to her feet and followed. Amazing.

She continued to improve all day, and today she is tired, but almost herself again. Her throat is still very swollen and sore (partly from the tube) so she can only make a sound that can only be described as a goose-like honk. One by one yesterday afternoon, her doggie-friends were brought to her so they could see she was all right. As you can see in this picture, Pickles was much relieved that her buddy was back.

Marieta said that a people who are bit by mambas and survive often have to learn to walk all over again and are in bed for weeks. So everyone is sure that Lala has some important reason to be here with us still. She is being spoiled and pampered by all--and deserving of it.

On to the Swakopmund story. My favorite activity was the seal and dolphin boat trip that Marieta and I took. One of the seals came aboard for some fish and lovin'--and I was privileged to have Spotty sit on my lap and let me hug him. He was big, but hey--he ain't heavy, he's my seal. His breath, though, could have used a few dozen Tic Tacs--very rotting fish-like.

We went on to see hundreds of seals on one beach. There are about 2 million people in Namibia, but there are 2 1/2 million seals. They sound like sheep "baaa-ing" all together. Quite amusing animals. I may bring one home.

On board we were treated to champagne and oysters (at 10:00 in the morning). Marieta had her first oyster ever--grimaced the whole time, but she got it down. My years living in New Orleans made me a fan of them, though, so I put away more than my share of them.

Then we ran into several pods of dolphins who followed the wake of our boat over and over. It was wonderful to watch them. All in all, it was a great little adventure. I always think life's experiences are enriched by the presence of animals.

At night we went out for fabulous seafood--one night at a barefoot bar on the beach and another at a five-star restaurant shaped like a boat, called The Wreck. Swakopmund is a great seaside resort town because it has authentic German architecture, genuine African art shops, and none of those cheesy cheap souvenir and t-shirt shops. The sand goes on for miles and miles and miles with no one on them but a few walkers with their dogs. But buy your property quickly--construction is everywhere.

So I picked out my beachfront lot near Langstrand--the place where Angelina and Brad went to have their baby Shiloh. Now I just have to wait for my ship to come in. Marieta and I decided to build next to each other and get a fast boat for dolphin sightseeing. Anybody who wants to donated a couple of million, feel free. Checks accepted.

Monday, March 1, 2010


I'm home from my trip to Swakopmund, but tales of that adventure will have to wait till tomorrow.

The first creature to greet me home was Lala, the beautiful and sweet yellow lab whom you can see in this photo with Pickles and the two baby boons in my bed one night. (When I got home, Pickles was in the kitchen with Cecelia, the cook, so it took her some time to hear me. Pickles is what I call a "meat-whore" and will love you for a bite of your supper.)

Once the two dogs and I had made re-connections and had a small lick-fest, the two joined me in my room while I unpacked. Soon, though, Frikkie called Lala out for an afternoon walk with Martha, the lion cub. She ran out my door--she loves taking walks in the bush.

A few hours later, I went into the office, and Mariska asked if I had heard anything about Lala, who, she said, had been bitten by a mamba on the lion walk. It was the first I had heard. I bolted for the clinic.

When I arrived, Lala was unconscious, with an IV drip in, and the vet was pumping air into her lungs every few seconds. The bite of a mamba paralyzes the lungs so the victim can't breathe. Her heart was beating rapidly (240 beats a minute) but the only thing keeping her alive was the slow pumping of air into her lungs. I tried to be strong, but Lala is such a good dog--only 6 six years old. She has raised a leopard cub and a lion cub as their surrogate mother, and has such a sweet temperament. We all took turns crying and petting and talking to her.

People were racing to Gobabis for the anti-venom, which arrived around 6 p.m. The vet put four doses into her and we waiting, taking turns pumping the air in. Her heart continued to beat at an alarming speed, and her temperature soared, so we packed her in ice until it came down. The snake had bitten her right on the tongue, so the poison went straight into her system. Her tongue was so big and swollen that it had to be pulled out of her mouth and set to the side. It looked like a piece of puffy liver.

As several of us sat around the table, talking and pumping, whispering to Lala and telling her to keep fighting, we talked about how this could have been prevented. The only way would have been to keep her from her favorite activity: running through the bush at high speeds, checking every plant and tree, and chasing whatever moved.

To protect her, she would have had to be on a leash the whole time, confined to a life that was careful but dull. Being bit by a snake is one of the risks dogs always have--not just in Africa, but everywhere. Back in North Carolina, my vet often has a dog in her office that has stuck its nose too close to a copperhead or cottonmouth. People often live in fear of what might happen, but dogs shouldn't have to. We can't make the choice for them--especially in a place where they can run free.

At 8:00, the volunteers started in shifts of 2 people for 2 hours each, pumping and watching her. Then the medicine started to work, and at midnight she started to breathe on her own, so the vet, Desmond, gratefully took the tube out. She started to regain consciousness--a slow process.

I didn't sleep much. This morning I ran over to the clinic first thing, found her still on an IV and lying down on her side, but conscious and breathing. When I said her name and petted her, she wagged her tail. Now it's just a matter of time--recovery is slow, but there should be no side effects.

It's wonderful that everyone came together to save the life of this one dog. People here will do anything because they believe that the lives of animals are valuable. All the time, energy, money for medicine, and belief of the people here made it happen.

This morning I whispered to her that she is welcome to sleep in my bed as soon as she is able.