Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Camping in the forest of Dwesa

         I continue to write inadequate words to supplement the inadequate nature of photography as a means of capturing moments and landscapes. There are some things that cannot be put in a 4 x 6 frame, and the entirety of Africa is one of them. We spent the last 5 days camping in Dwesa forests on the opposite side of the Mbashe river from where we are spending most of our time (at the Haven in Cwebe). We met with a group of students from the Rhodes University botany program and spent the days wandering through the woods, along the coast, through the grasslands and anywhere else we could find good plant specimens. Using old fashioned methods of pressing and drying, we made catalogues of indigenous plants for the Rhodes/Penn State herbarium. This seemingly innocuous activity turned out to be rather enlightening, opening my eyes to the subtle and profound details of nature within Eastern Cape flora. It was somewhat of a meditation, walking slowly between trees, gazing upwards at a mosaic of leaf patterns as the hot African sun played a silent xylophone on their creaking branches. The plant life, like the animal life, is so varied and unique--at almost any scale there is a painting of diversity, an inseparable intermingling of life that makes sense only as it can be seen through the kaleidoscope of the entire forest.
            As we meandered through Dwesa, we were often escorted by armed guards--as it turns out, this was a necessity for more reason than one. The main motivation for such a precaution is Cape Buffalo, notoriously smelly, ugly animals with females that wander in groups with young. It is the old, grumpy bachelor males that cause all the ruckus, as they will charge you and gore you to death if you happen across one and don’t make it up a tree in time. They are enormous beasts, about the size of an American buffalo, with bad temperaments and a propensity for hanging around on the outskirts of forest and grassland areas, just the spots we were searching for plant specimens. Dwessa itself is home to about 150 of these giants, who, apart from hippos, are among the most dangerous animals in Africa.
            Also on the list of concerns in Dwessa were the crocodiles, one of which I may or may not have encountered one night during an evening amphibian survey near one of the smaller tributaries that feeds the Mbashe. Small, murky pools of water are common throughout Dwessa and make ideal hideouts for the crocodiles in the area. On that night, as I made my way up this small creek, hopping rock-to-rock, I heard a loud splash and movement ahead in the dark. I flashed my light to see the surface of the pond in front of me fluxing up and down, presumably from the weight of a large animal--and one that didn’t want to be seen. I backed away from the pond slowly and made my way back to the safety of the bakkie. Best not test these waters--they bite back.
            The last reason that the armed guards were a necessity did not present itself until the last day and it did so in a sobering and rather disheartening manner. There were 5 endangered white rhino living in Dwesa, and, while they are not indigenous to the area, the park does provide a nice home for several rhinos from a species whose numbers are dwindling rapidly. On Sunday, we were informed by Jan, the parks board director and our friend and companion in the field, that one of the five rhino were found. Its carcass had obvious signs of poaching with a severed horn and likely a bullet wound. This is the first white rhino to be poached in the Eastern Cape in almost 20 years, and such an event has had, and is having, quite a fallout. That day, they flew in an expert forensic scientist to help put together the pieces of how this poaching happen (and managed to go unnoticed for some time, as the carcass was about 2 months old). The remaining rhino were scattered, three were supposedly accounted for and the final one was still missing, last we heard. From talking to Jan, he seems to think that it was likely poached as well--the park rangers are now really searching for another corpse.

*For more of my thoughts on poaching and this event, see my post on March 13th, 2011.

            The week of camping was wonderful, even in spite of the added effect of this event to hang over our heads. We got to know the local students well. Nothing like drinking, music and skinny dipping in the Indian ocean to help bridge cultural boundaries. Truly, there is not a single person I talked to (be they South African, Zimbabwean, Namibian or otherwise) who was not absolutely wonderful. In the best way possible, people are people, and Africans (regardless of country or skin color or anything else) are spectacular people. The students from Rhodes, whether they know it or not, represented their countries and their universities in a spectacular way. It really is nice to know that people of that caliber exist across the globe.

            On the last day, we decided to walk back along the coast, some 5 to 8 kilometers, back to the Cwebe side of the Mbashe. The river crossing would have to be done via canoes, as the shark populations and presence of crocodiles in the park would make swimming in murky, over-your-head water conditions quite dangerous. The hike itself, however, was excellent. Once again, we had no trails to follow, except for old game trails and beaches. We transitioned from rolling grassland knolls to thick-as-a-jungle forests, to open beaches and dunes, all within the course of a few kilometers. This hike, while relatively short and only one among a list of many hikes we have taken so far while in the RSA, was yet another epic testament to the endless natural beauty of South Africa. We crossed outcrops of grassland that dropped suddenly into vertical rock cliffs into the sea--hundreds of feet below, the waves crashed against the walls while we perched high and dry on the knolls above. Along the way, we came across the skeleton of a whale of some sort, having washed up and decayed long ago, only the bones remained. It was hard to keep a mind out for Cape Buffalo when the world around me was comprised of so many things that are so much larger than myself (both literally and figuratively).
           
            Now we are back at the Haven, this time for a longer stint of two weeks. Nothing like morning runs along the beach, local SA brews at night, and being surrounded by an immense forest wilderness. Life is good, sometimes leaving a funny taste in my mouth, but still, life is good.

wandering along the Wild Coast,
-little hupo


Brief Dissertation on Life

There are layers to life. There are concentric circles, the lines between which are fluid and dynamic. To try and separate any one of these from all others is like pulling a lens from a telescope--the picture gets blurry, the objects loose focus and the beauty is obscured by your arrogant attempt at segregation. The nature of life is holistic, it is emergent and complex in essence and fundamentally reducible only into parts that are equally as complex. Life is a series of greater and lesser infinities, stretching further beyond and further inside any one notion that you might ever hope to know. The greatest folly of man is the assumption of truth; surely, Socrates was right when he said:

“Wisest is he who knows he knows nothing.”

            Wisdom is the acknowledgment of ignorance, the inevitability of naivety in the face of an overwhelming everything. We are all fools, greater and lesser fools. We are all children at the feet of our cosmic mother--the universe is a puzzle and we can barely lift the pieces. This is the world we shall pass onto our children and our tradition of hubris shall be the vehicle for that passage. Be free and acknowledge the impossibility of understanding and the beauty of our innocence within this transient reality. Love with a heart that needs no reasoning, have compassion with the knowledge that a life is lived only once, feel for this world in a way that blurs the line between the self and the non-self, between your heart and all others. Accept the limits of your small hands, all ye’ weak and persistent Sisyphus’, and push your boulders until your calluses are raw and bleeding.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Wild of Mkhambathi

This is a newer post. Again, sorry about the lag in time, intenet access is not too great. Also, I won't be able to post pictures for the same reason, but get a hold of me when I get back to the states and I can show you in person!!


I have lost track of time. I feel as if I have been suspended in this sliver of Africa for centuries, lifetimes even. For the past week (and the reason for my complete lack of communication with the world) we have been camping in an area totally removed from internet/phone/everything connection. We spent 8 days at the Mkhambathi nature reserve of the Eastern Cape, approximately 6 hours away from Dwesa-Cwebe and about two hours drive from the nearest town of Flagstaff. Up to this point in our trip, we have experienced some very pristine wilderness--from our stay at the Nature Conservatory, to our work in Morgan’s Bay to our stay Dwesa-Cwebe. However, once again, I am confronted with an even more wild version of Africa.
            In Mkhambathi, our role for the week was as conservationists. We were half scientists and half explorers for 8 days, driving around the park on roads barely passable by 4-wheel drive Land Rovers (assuming the roads were even there at all), crossing rivers, hiking in never before seen gorges, setting bouldering routes during our breaks on sandstone formations never before climbed and usually, rarely even seen. It was like being a kid, with free reign over a 7,500 hectare nature reserve and a purpose for being there.
            In Mkhambathi the herds of animals are much larger than in Dwesa-Cwebe, 50-100 strong, mixes of zebra, blesbuck, eland, kudu, red hartebeest, dik-diks, gazelle and others. Troops of baboons crossed the fields or the beach in front of our camp daily, often glancing curiously and tossing about their deep, throaty warning barks in our direction. Jackals, vervets, tons of lesser antelope species, innumerable reptiles, amphibians, and bird species rounded out the back-road and isolated landscape of this segment of the WIld Coast. Once again, ocean waters filled with sharks and whales and dolphins and fish and everything else crashed just off shore. Our camp was located just off of a small bay--beautiful breaks, beautiful warm Indian ocean waters, and beautiful sunrises/sunsets were common place, although still staggering even despite this. After a long day in the field, jumping in this ocean to wash the dirt from my skin and to heal my cuts and bruises was my daily baptism.
            Every morning, we were up by 5 am, stepping our of tents only to be greeted by the sun peeking over the pillars of rocks 50 meters away; Waves crashed and breeched into the air, playing prism with the yellow-red rays of an early dawn on Eastern African shore. Instant coffee and oats for made a simple, yet perfect breakfast before heading  out into the field.
            Our fieldwork consisted of two different projects that we switched between every other day. The first project involved setting up and documenting plots for grassland research being conducted by our professor, Erika Smithwick. These were long days, 12-plus hours in the grasslands with little to no shade and tough manual labor. Awesome. Sweaty work days. Leaving the field smelling awful and barely being able to move. Amazing. Life is good. For me, just being in Africa, made even the most monotonous and otherwise unpleasant tasks into something brilliant, every day story worthy, every moment capable of invoking awe, laughter or just an un-containable smile.
            On every other day, we were working with the local and friendly Parks Board ranger Jan Venter and his herpetologist friend Wernan to locate, catch and catalogue the amphibian and reptile species in the park. Just as a side-note, the reason this type of work is necessary is because there is still a lack of definitive knowledge of what exactly lives within the park boundaries. The Parks Board knows that Mkhambathi is a biodiversity hotspot on the globe, that it is threatened by a number of forces, and that conservation is necessary. They do not know, however, what exactly it is they are conserving or the best ways to go about doing so. As a result, we got to spend a week, like kids in a candy shop, walking through unexplored territory with snake tongs and crowbars (for prying up rocks), setting traps and chasing after any number of curious critters. Life is so good.
            On one of our days of trekking, we stopped for lunch in a waterfall pool that crashed down 30 meters directly into the ocean. We ate sandwiches, swam in our underwear and watched the tide slowly come in on the beach below. There are 4 waterfalls in the world like this and Mkhambathi is home to 2 of them. We ate lunch in one of them and drank the fresh water coming out of its spring straight from the falls. After lunch, on this day, we ventured down into a gorge that had only been surveyed briefly in the past. the gorge walls got steeper and steeper (some great bouldering) and eventually, after hours of bushwhacking through the underbrush, we came to a small waterfall with vertical rock faces on each side. At this point, time being the issue, we had to turn back, but I realized something ver important from this small area of unexplored gorge that had only been seen one or two times ever--there are still so many places in this earth to explore.
            The week in Mkhambathi was inexplicable. I feel as if these words are just a cursory and superficial effort in comparison to the time I have spent in that place. In the future, I would love to talk at greater length about any of these things, but in person and with pictures and hand gestures to supplement my stories. Life is so good.


            The world is still wild. The world is still beautiful. There is still a world to be saved and conserved. I promise you that this is true.


acting like a kid again (only this time, with PhD’s and researchers and an NSF grant),
-little hupo

The Village of Hobeni (Cwebe)

Sorry it has been a while, you will know why in my next post. This was to be posted a week ago, but I didn't have internet connection. Either way, enjoy!


I am confused, or at least changed, or somehow suspended in an unexpected liminality between being two different individuals, both of whom I do not know fully. Powerful forces are quietly playing dice with my soul--all is as it should be. This morning the ocean is ruffled with a storm surf as dark clouds tip-toe across the shore. The animals, usually curious and rowdy at this time of morning, seem to have holed up in every possible nook that the forest might offer; only the birds are still singing.
            I find myself in Africa, with little direction, weak footing, doubting parts of myself, anxious about the demands of my quickly approaching future and with the overwhelming feeling of being a grain of sand on an endless beach. It seems hard to do the right thing, to say upright, to know that you are driven by the right motivations, that you have good intentions, that your actions will actually make a difference. Its hard, as well, to dedicate yourself to something and not sound like a martyr, to find some middle ground between those things that you can control and those over which you are utterly powerless. Powerful forces are quietly playing dice with my soul.
            Last night, by accident, or perhaps by providence, all of the pictures that I have taken so far on this trip were deleted from my computer. It was my fault, it was unintentional and, while I wish could have avoided this, I don’t feel very bad. My memory is much more important. At least now I know I can guiltlessly exaggerate my stories even more knowing there is no way to corroborate or deny my outrageous claims (...”the sharks were 10 meters long, I swear!”).
            This unfortunate loss (or divine gain of perspective) comes at a very interesting part of this trip. We have been doing some initial work in the communities of Hobeni and Cwebe, which surround the Dwesa-Cwebe nature reserve. The long term plan is to somehow integrate development in the community with conservation in the park. Easier said than done. Still, such a goal seems far removed and distant, so much so that I have found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned with such a notion.
            In the past few days, we have met with two of the seven villages in the Dwesa-Cwebe area and participated in community meetings. At the first meeting, in Hobeni, we experienced a strange tension, an ambiguous friction, from the people of the community. I can’t blame them but I also can’t entirely get my head around it. At our second meeting (this time in Cwebe), initially, things seemed to have gone over much better. There was laughing and talking, smokes shared, conversations bubbling, and a passing of traditional corn mash and a mealli-mealli (ground corn) drink. But despite the good feelings and our cross-cultural communion, I couldn’t avoid the feeling that what these people need are things we can’t deliver. We can’t build a school, we can’t move mountains, we can’t give scholarships.
            The problems here are endemic, deep seated, and do not fit lightly on our narrow shoulders. I want to help, I want to leave a part of myself in this place, I want to be selfless enough to cause change, but several confounding variables are becoming apparent:

         Politics are Politics- whether big or small, rich or poor, we are all a political organism.
         People are People- trying to dichotomize the world into right and wrong, black and white, undermines the complexity of the human sphere.
         Good intentions aren’t enough- one needs drive to accomplish something and also the capital upon which to build that accomplishment. We need a clearly defined purpose.

            This is an experience that is shaping me in many ways, many more ways than I could have ever expected. This is a good thing, the world is a beautiful place. But I can’t help but ask myself, several times a day, between wonderful moments and quiet pauses of reflection, “What am I doing here?”. I am a student but I am also a human being. I am a white American male, the epitome of privileged, and I understand the entire spectrum of our collective human history with blood on my hands. Its a funny paradox. The contingency of time is a fickle mistress, but nonetheless, not in short supply. Everything is right and beautiful in the world, all is as it should be. So it goes.


from the Transkei,
-mario

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Running for our Lives: A Tale of Bovine and Beaches

    Last night--the first time in my twenty-one years that, in the absolute presence of the moment, I feared for my life. It was fleeting, but it left my pulse like a machine gun for the entire night. I mean this with honesty. This if fucking Africa.

    Star studded, moonlit nights on the Wild Coast are transcendental, in a very Emerson-esqe sense. The sky, the sea and the forest melt into one dark, musical mass that suspend your momentarily weightless matter within a rhythm and outside of time. This is the kind of night in which I found myself, on the beach with my good friend JQ, tossing about in a conversation, on the look out for shooting stars and UFO’s. We were heading back to the Haven, along the beaches of the Eastern Cape. As we approached the tide pool crossing, which essentially functions to split the beach in two, several things become apparent: my torch is inadequate, we are covered in sand, and we are not alone.
    Ahead of us are silhouettes, embedded in the black backdrop of the sand and the forest. We pause. I flip my light straight ahead. It hits its target. Six sets of yellow eyes are staring back at us, about 20 meters ahead. We freeze.

        Before I continue, I feel as if I must clarify to my audience what exactly is     meat when I say the Wild Coast. This is a part of South Africa, notoriously     secluded, remote and untouched. It is a place of limited development and limited     infrastructure. It is a place that is often fenced off and put aside as nature     reserves, often with little knowledge of what wildlife actually exists within these     areas. Still, today, estimates of present species biodiversity and biodensity are     poorly researched and at times, unknown.
        In this reserve Dwessa-Cwebe, there are many animal species--white     rhino, jaguar, several large antelope species, alligator, baboons, vervet monkeys,     zebra, smaller predatory cats, green and black mambas along with an entire     slew of others, some big and some small but all wild. Of course, the terrestrial life     is one thing, but with the reputedly shark infested waters offshore, it becomes     fairly evident: this place is on the edge of the map. The nearest hospital is 2     hours drive along a single pockmarked and punched-out road. Helicopters     cannot land here. Needless to say, it is in one’s best interest to tread softly and     cautiously.

    With that in mind, we now return to our story.

    Our minds race for an explanation, and one that will allow us to ignore our already rising heart rates and get home. Our first thought is horses, we know there are some on the reserve. No dice, the glowing eyes can’t be horses, for the coloring and brightness is caused by a tapetum lucidum (a shiny covering on the back of the eye ball that assists with night vision), which horses lack. It can’t be the local jaguar for these animals are solitary and reclusive. As for being baboons, this is unlikely because otherwise, we’d probably already be running for our lives. The shadows remain mere shadows.
    We quickly realize our options are limited as this is the only way to get back home. I draw my pocket knife and with it, a false sense of courage and security (note: the sarcastic presentation of my faux-manliness is meant to belie the actual fear in my mind). I am an idiot. A pocket knife against some of these animals would be like trying to kill a gorilla with a toothpick. Either way, hats off to a bravery born of ignorance--we started walking forward. My flashlight is fixed on these creatures, which slowly become slightly more defined as we get closer and closer. Its funny, even as the picture of these animals became clearer, the racing of my mind obscured my rational ability to actually discern what I was seeing. At one point, I could have sworn it was a pride of lions. Shortly after, it seemed more likely to just be some driftwood. Finally, I was convinced that it must be a dragon of some sort. The point is, we still had no idea, and now we were within 10 meters.
    What happened next is still up to debate--it was sudden and our actions were purely a reaction to a potentially false stimulus. It is at this moment that JQ exclaims,     “Holy shit, its coming toward us.”
    Wether this was actually the case or not, I have my reservations, however, in the moment, this was more than enough to send us sprinting headlong in the opposite directions. We were trapped, between this terrible shadowy creature, a shark infested ocean and a long, long beach. Surely, we would be overtaken and inevitably eaten by something. It was only a matter of time.
    Luckily, it wasn’t long before we realized that whatever it was had not decided to follow us. We glanced nervously in their direction. Between our heavy breathing and occasional holy-shit’s, we devised a plan to walk along the opposite side of the tide pool, cross it up stream (as it was only a few inches deep at max) and make our way back. This plan, carried out with fear and fervor, was successful and we soon found ourselves safe and sound on our cozy roundeval porches. Both of us, scared for our lives just moments before, calmly recounted our story to JQ’s half-awake roommate. Of course, the news of unidentified monsters on the beach just a kilometer away did not help her get back to sleep anytime soon. I assured them both that I would get up early and head back to the tide pool in an attempt to identify these mysterious animals.

    6 am: I woke up from what was otherwise a poor excuse for a good night’s rest. I got on some sandals and headed back to the beach, hoping to find some tracks, some poop, or any other type of evidence that might help us identify the cause of the previous night’s panic. Upon reaching the beach, however, no clues were needed, as our would-be-assailants were still waiting in the sand beside the tide pool. I walked up next to the group, took off my sandals, and started running through my morning yoga routine right next to them. I burst out laughing.
    Lounging lazily on the beach next to my was a small herd of cattle, chewing their cud in a manner that seemed to mock the absolute fear of the night before. Apparently, my laughter seemed to annoy them, so they stood up and strolled away down the beach, leaving several heaping piles of well digested grass in their stead. Just the night before, these innocuous, beef wagons had sent us, in all reality, running for our lives. To be fair, all of these cattle were bulls with a few descent sets of horns between them. Not that they would consumed us whole, but the thought of sneaking past these guys in the dark is still not entirely appetizing. Regardless, I have lived to tell the tale. And JQ will forever know that, when frightened, I scream like a little girl.

still alive,
-mario