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,