The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
EDITORS NOTE: Before we get started, I am thrilled to announce that Jean Kelly has joined the blog as a photo contributor! I'm a writer, not a photog, and let's be honest, my pictures are mediocre at best. Jean has agreed to let me use her pics, and I couldn't be more excited. Thank you, Jean! Now, let's get to it...
The next day Team Aardwolf was scheduled for “research” in the morning and afternoon. As with most everything else, I had no idea what research entailed. After the morning meeting, I gathered with my team around Burton, one of the guys who runs the research center on the Reserve.
Research is a big part of the work at Na’ankuse. It’s intricate and not always predictable. What I learned quickly was there’s much to monitor. Of the 25,000 acres, the Reserve makes up close to 90%. The research team tracks the movement of all the animals, sometimes through the use of collars with wireless tracking devices, as well as installing strategically positioned automatic cameras around high-traffic areas like watering holes and dams.
As we piled onto the truck that would take us over to the Reserve, I was feeling refreshed and ready for a new day. I had gotten totally distracted chatting with Helen and Jean the day before and the late afternoon stretched into evening. Jean’s optimism and pure joy over being around the animals was infectious. Single, in her 50s, Jean works in the non-profit sector. She lives about 40 minutes out of London (via train) and was spending two weeks at Na’ankuse. Helen, a self-proclaimed “Geordie” from Newcastle, a region in Northeastern England, was hilarious. I had no idea what a Geordie was, though, I was sure it had something to do with her thick accent and phrases that I hardly understood. Helen was fiery, down-to-earth, and just easy to be around.
Our group of two grew as others returned to Bush Camp from their afternoon work. I met Carla (pictured), a tour guide from Sweden. It was immediately clear how well suited she was for the job, given her zest and bubbly personality. Eeva and Hedda, of course, joined as well, and a few others. We drank wine together long after the bar closed at 7pm. And the best news of all was Helen and Carla lived in the tent next to mine. This meant I no longer had to walk across the bush in the dark alone.
Connecting with those staying at Bush Camp boosted my confidence. I didn’t feel as awkward as my team gathered in the research building that second day. Lotte was clearly tired the day before, as she was much more upbeat and talkative. Burton and the other research coordinators asked us to wait in the main seating area while they figured out what we’d be doing that morning. Once again, it struck me odd that the only person who actually introduced himself was Burton. The rest of the research team didn’t even acknowledge us with a “good morning.”
Ten minutes later, one of the coordinators came to out to talk to us.
“We’re going to get started soon, but in the meantime, can you guys please straighten the chairs out, wipe them down along with all the surfaces in this room?”
This irritated me. Not because I think cleaning is beneath me. Trust, that’s the first thing I asked myself. It was more about how invisible I felt. I felt like a worker – nameless and faceless – and that really bothered me. Plus, once again, we were given a task without any real direction. I had to ask if there were rags we could use to do the cleaning.
Josh started putting the chairs into rows, while Lotte and I got started on the chair-wiping. Sara, well, she just sat there, playing with her phone. I wondered if the others noticed. How could they not? The room was about the size of your average waiting room in a doctor’s office. My irritation grew, as I wondered why the hell she wasn’t helping.
I resisted the urge to talk shit about Sara to Lotte as we rinsed our dirty rags in the bathroom sink. Aside from the fact it just isn’t cool to trash someone you barely know to someone you barely know, I really wanted to focus on the good stuff as much as possible. Adjusting to all the quirks of life at Na’ankuse was hard enough. Getting resentful would do nothing for my experience, so I just took it out on those stupid chairs.
Once finished, we piled back onto the truck and waited for Burton. Our task for the morning was to change out several memory cards and batteries from the different cameras placed around the Reserve. The cameras automatically took a burst of pictures several times an hour.
Before we did that, however, we needed to figure out where the lions were. I supposed that just rolling up to a camera in the middle of the Reserve and jumping out without knowing what was lurking in the area would be foolish. Burton confirmed this, and we went about “tracking” the lions.
The lions wore special collars that transmitted a signal, which made it possible to pinpoint their general location. The whole process felt very 1960’s, with Josh listening to a device slung over his shoulder that looked like an old-school cassette-tape player with a leather carrying strap. I volunteered to hold the second part of the contraption that looked like a TV antennae. The “antennae” would pick up movement from the lions’ collars and transmit a signal to Josh’s box. It was fun; riding around on the truck, arm above my head, slowly rotating the device, while Josh listened intently and tapped the truck if the signal (a clicking sound) became more rapid.
We found the lions pretty quickly. And when I say, “found” I don’t mean that we actually saw them. According to the clicks, they were somewhere on the northern side of the Reserve. That meant it was safe to head South. Burton was a plethora of information, explaining a bunch of stuff that I hardly retained, but found quite fascinating. It was inspiring to see his enthusiasm and dedication to what he does – even if my arms were tired. Lotte offered to assist, but I loved having a task, sore arms included. Sara, well, she just stood there – again.
One of the best parts about riding around in the Reserve is you actually get to see some animals. We didn’t see much that morning, but we saw some springbok (pictured), eland, warthogs and even an ostrich!
I loved every minute of it, despite the hot sun beating down on the back of my neck. Josh was excellent at spotting different animals roaming around. My eyes were not accustomed to what to look for, and I resisted the urge to point things out as we whizzed by. Good thing, because every single time we got closer, I’d realize they were just really big rocks.
As we rode toward the south end of the Reserve, we came to an abrupt stop. Burton hopped out, while conversing in a different language on his walkie-talkie. Most Africans spoke Afrikaans – a language that actually sounds a lot like Hebrew derived from the Dutch, when they settled in Africa.
“Guys,” he said to us. “We’ve got to check out a fire, okay?”
We’d all seen the smoke, but didn’t think much of it. I think maybe someone even said aloud, “Look, smoke”, but none of us understood the grave dangers of any type of fire on the dry lands of Namibia. Burton jumped back in the truck, and we all held on a little tighter as we sped off to follow the smoke.
That’s the thing about the wilderness. It’s not predictable. A schedule can be abandoned at any moment for the needs of something more urgent, like say, a new baboon or a hungry baby rhino. It bumped against my need for some structure and knowledge of what’s next, but the things that hijacked the schedule were so far beyond what I’d ever imagined, the excitement outweighed the discomfort.
The fire turned out to be nothing – just the nearby airport burning trash. We resumed the task of tending to the cameras. The first stop was a “popular” spot – a watering hole where animals would frequent day and night when their thirst called. Burton asked us to stay in the truck as he did a quick sweep for lions with the tracking device. I appreciated this. I’d been proud of my integral part in confirming the lions were safely to the North, but Burton double-checking my work was the difference between life and death for all of us.
The whole process of changing batteries and memory cards took all of 10 minutes. We serviced three or four cameras in all, and once that was completed, we were done for the morning. After lunch, we’d come back and sort through the photos, labeling and logging each one.
As much as things moved quickly at Na’ankuse, there was also a lot of waiting around. We returned to the research center to drop off our equipment and pick up the others for lunch. Before we headed over to the Farm, we stood around for a good 20-30 minutes. It was such a 60 to zero moment for me, and I quickly became restless. I wandered outside onto the front deck.
Burton was on the phone speaking with a farmer, discussing a Cheetah “situation” in detail. The whole thing intrigued me as Burton pressed the farmer for as much information as possible.
Part of what Na’ankuse does is a lot like Animal Care and Control. They have cultivated strong relationships with local farmers over the years, becoming a trusted ally in the conservation of their livestock and the wildlife. When a wild animal – particularly a predator – is spotted, the farmers will reach out to Na’ankuse. This was much better than the farmer straight-up shooting the intruder, which used to be the norm.
Cell service was highly unreliable, and the connection was lost before Burton could get the skinny. I was ready to jump back into the truck and race over to the farm in search of the lost cheetah (if Burton asked, of course.) But he simply hung up with an “Oh well.”
“What happens next,” I asked.
“I’ll send him an email and we’ll sort it out.”
Burton wasn’t being lackadaisical about any of it. The cheetah would be back – especially if he/she thought a good meal was possible. The wilderness marched to the beat of a different drum for sure – and I was working on getting into lockstep with all of it.