Monday, 25 March 2013

Umlani Bushcamp aka Two of the Best Days of My Life

9 - 10 March 2013

Baby zebra we encounter at Umlani. All photos in this post courtesy of Michael Rezin. Check out his facebook for many more high quality photos of Umlani and our time in South Africa:
We board two vans for a six hour car ride (featuring some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, from rolling hills to glorious mountains to treeless flatland) which is all that stands between us and a two day stay in the bush with South African wildlife. Pilanesburg - that was nothing, said so many South Africans after we told them of our safaris there. Kruger, now that is a safari. We arrive at Umlani Bushcamp and find no fences or gates to bar us from the animals of Timbavati Game Reserve in the Kruger Park area. To heighten the nature experience, we don't have access to electricity or internet. Oh, and our showers have no roof but the clouds and stars. For these two days, the outside world doesn't exist.

Young male lion at Umlani
After lunch, unpacking, and a meeting with the Provost of Fordham University, Dr. Freedman, we ready for our first game drive. The vehicles are more open than our past experience - no sides and no roof. They are special, and our ticket into the thick of the bush. With amazing shocks, our guides often take them off road to bring us close to the animals. Whenever the guides are aware of one of the big South African five being nearby, they take us straight to them. So one of the first animals we see is a young male lion lying in the grass. The vehicles come incredibly close, but he pays us little mind. He turns his head into the wind, enjoying the breeze and sniffing for impala that could be his next meal. Around his neck you can see where his mane is starting to grow.

Sundowners with Dr. Freedman
 For our first of four drives, we also see a tortoise (that our guide turns right side up), impala, white rhinos, and a family of elephants. Near the end of our drive the sun is descending and we stop at a watering hole for sundowners. While we enjoy drinks and snacks, and conversation with Dr. Freedman and Ellen Fahey-Smith (Chief of Staff for Fordham), two hippos wallow in the water, occasionally coming up to breathe and silently stare at us.

One of the hippos who looked on as we enjoyed the sunset over the watering hole.

The next morning we wake at 5AM and head back out into the bush. First thing we see three female lionesses on one of the few paved roads. They walk right by the vehicles, their muscle moving under their sleek, magnificent golden coats. They are so close we could reach out and pet them - if we have a death wish, that is.
Close proximity with lionesses.
Wild dogs, endangered animals, have been near the camp for a while, and next we drive off to find them. Off road, we encounter a majority of the pack numbering over 20. Their coats patchy, they are the calicos of canines. At one point, an impala appears and leaps behind our path. Wild dogs follow closely in pursuit, but the bush is too thick for us to follow and find out the endgame of the hunt.
One of the pack.

During the rest of our drives we encounter giraffes, warthogs, impala, other wallowing hippos, two huge trees teeming with countless baboons, a jackal, huge spiders, two adult male lions with full manes, and my favourite moment: a cheetah. We find her under a tree with her recent kill, an impala. Cheetahs are on the bottom of the totem pole for predators, and she must keep a constant watch for lions, leopards, wild dogs, and even jackals that could overpower her and claim her kill.

All good things come to an end. Leaving is painful. But we'll also remember these two days filled with some of the most beautiful beings that inhabit our planet. And the long ride back is far from dull. The beautiful landscapes are there again, and this time we stop to see a couple sights, namely Blyde River Canyon and God's Window.
Blyde River Canyon
God's Window

Definitely a view fit for a god or goddess~

~The Cloud Catcher

Monday, 18 March 2013

Horseback Riding, Camping, and Service Placements

Come the first weekend in March, the group split up for various weekend activities. About half of us stayed in the village where we live, and enjoyed a relaxing weekend. It was a welcomed break from schedules and structure. Saturday was chill, with people doing their own thing (I read for several wonderful hours), and then in the evening we watched different movies in small groups.

Groenkloof, photo courtesy of Mike Rezin. Check out his facebook  which is regularly updated with photos and blurbs from South Africa: 
Sunday we went to the Groenkloof Nature Reserve for hiking, horseback-riding, and mountain biking.

Setting off on a hike, photo courtesy of Mike Rezin.
We went hiking first, wandering the reserve based on a map that only one of us knew how to read. The first half of the hike we found ourselves mostly in bushed grassland, but the latter half we ascended a rocky hill that gave us a beautiful view of the nature reserve below us, as seen in the first picture of this entry. Along the way we encountered animals including a zebra and her foal a mere handful of feet away, as seen in the picture below of Christine and zebra.
Christine and zebra, photo courtesy of Mike Rezin.
After the hike we mounted horses for a ride through the reserve. Thought part of the time we went the same path, it was a different experience being elevated above the high grasses and able to see more around you, including more animals.
Matt looking regal on his horse, photo by Stephen.

Mike's horse was a bit of a troublemaker, never wanting to follow the crowd. Photo by Stephen.

Jen excited for the ride, photo by Stephen.
Despite some sunburn and minor saddle soreness, the nature reserve was a day outing of perfection, and I hope to go back soon.

As for the rest of the group, a couple people went to a farm with friends, and then a larger group went camping with 12th years from a high school in the community they are serving.

This Fordham group (roughly half of us) teach a life skills class to the students (12th years/seniors), and the camping trip was a great way for the Fordham students to become acquainted with the high-schoolers. It was a bonding experience that formed the basis for relationships that continue to grow as the Fordham students visit and teach at the school one to two days a week.

Other placements for us include agriculture, home based care, the computer labs, and arts and crafts. In agriculture, my own placement, we've been working in the fields with agricultural workers. Recently we cleared a corn field for new crop, planted cabbage seedlings, and created new bedding for future seedlings. Home based care visits the homes of the sick and elderly, helping however is needed. In the computer labs, basic skills are taught such as efficient typing technique. And in arts and crafts, women create hats, mats, and other merchandise from recycled plastic bags.

While the first weeks of service were slow, and much sorting had to happen, we have found our footing in our placements.

Later that first full week of March, Father Egan, our history professor, took us to see a play in Johannesburg called The Island. Featuring gifted actors and a bold script, the play was an intense cultural experience and history lesson. And it was the precursor to the best weekend yet in South Africa, but I'll cover that in my next entry!

Thanks for stopping by,

~The Cloud Catcher

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Weekend Explorations

It's been too long since I last posted! Please pardon the delay and bear with me as the blog catches up over the next few days to the present time. It's been a month, but it feels as though I've been here a long, wonderful time.
Where did we leave off last? 17 February, the Sunday we visited Jo'burg!

Photos Courtesy of Mike Rezin. Check out his facebook here which is regularly updated with photos from South Africa.
We explored a Jo'burg market in a warehouse with tree-shaded seating outside and a rooftop bar. I spent the first half hour trying every vegetarian-friendly sample that food vendors presented, including sweet rosepetal jelly, yummy sesame brittle, homemade pesto, and stoneground bread with hummus.  Here and there we found tables of jewellery, hair pieces, and other small trinkets. Upstairs was food-less  but fascinating, featuring art in multiple mediums from photography and sculpting to clothing and furniture constructed from recycled junk including a couch made of tires and pipes. My favourite room boasted books on everything from art to animals of South Africa.

After the market, we headed to Melville, a neighbourhood in Jo'burg featuring a long strip of road lined with bars, bookshops, clothing stores, and artsy shops. Chill and laid-back, it was a nice place to relax, have a few drinks, and read snippets from South African literature.

We took on another week of classes, a soccer game or two, and acquainting ourselves with our service sites. Things here move slowly in comparison to New York, which is challenge for many, but also sometimes a relief since we get a chance to slow down and take in our new experiences.

The last Sunday of February we headed to a music festival at Voortrekker Monument south of Pretoria. Unfortunately, when we arrived, the concert was sold out. The musical expedition turned into a journey through the monument itself and the museum underneath. The monument is a tribute to the Voortrekkers, pioneers who left the Cape Colony in the 1830s-40s and travelled north to escape British rule and find a better life. The view from the top of the monument stretched over hills, trees, and the city of Pretoria warmly lit by the afternoon sun.

Voortrekker monument, photo courtesy of Mike Rezin.

Monday I'll post about our first March weekend in South Africa and how our service placements are going.

Until then, tata,

~The Cloud Catcher

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Classes, Football Games, and Birthdays

After a simultaneously relaxing and tiring retreat (sleep time was minimal), we spent a lot of time napping and lounging about the pool in the village where we live. By Saturday evening though, we were ready to go out and take part in RAG "Reach out and Give." University of Pretoria holds the event, of which the first part involves resident students making floats. They parade the floats through the town, asking for donations which will go to a charity. When the night comes around it is time to party. We joined thousands of other Pretoria students in town for music and socializing. The night was long and so we took the following Sunday morning slow. People swam and hung out; a handful of students went to mass or church. For dinner we had a braai (a barbecue) in Kaleigh's honour, since it was her birthday.

With Monday came the first day of classes and the hard reality that we aren't just in South Africa to explore and volunteer. Our classes are really interesting and I am looking forward to learning from professors who may have perspectives different than I am used to. We are all taking two of the same classes which are aimed at expanding our knowledge and understanding of South Africa, its people, and its history. They will help guide us in our service and volunteering. For my other two classes I am taking a cultural anthropology class on South Africa and a Southern Africa archaeology class. I love the archaeology class so far, which is an ideal subject to be studying in a country such as South Africa which is rich with ancient archaeological sites and ties. At the end of the day we celebrated the birthday of one of our South African mentors, Mashuping.

After classes on Tuesday, our group went to a football (soccer) game between the Kaizer Chiefs and the Mamelodi Sundowns. The stadium was huge and packed, and the exhilarating energy of the crowd pulsed in time with the sound of drums that were played the entirety of the game. The game ended in a tie, 0-0, and while the Sundowns in particular played a great game, both teams proved to be talented.

Classes continued through the week, and Thursday evening we had our first class with Father Egan. His class is one of the two core, mostly a history class. It's unique because we'll have the class at the village each week, just the 14 of us (our other classes, including the other core module, has South African students in it). Friday was chill since most of us don't have class, and Saturday, too, was chill. Some people ran a 5k or 10k race in the morning. At dinner time we celebrated the birthday of Stephen, our RD/mentor.

Sunday we'll visit Jo'burg and explore, so good night and goodbye for now,

~ The Cloud Catcher

P. S. Sorry for the lack of photos.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

"Past those gates is Jurassic Park"

Inside Pilanesburg Game Reserve, early morning.
So said Francois, head of transportation for our study abroad group, as he drove us near the entrance to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. But we didn't go past those gates, where lions and leopards lurk, just yet. First we checked into Manyane Resort, our accommodations for the next two days.  A sounder of warthogs grazed on the front lawn, the first of many animals we would see over the next 48 hours. That was over a week ago, the 7th of February. And due to a spell of procrastination with this blog, I first must rewind to two days before, the 5th (11 days ago, oops).

That Tuesday we went to a performance of Umoja: The Spirit of Togetherness. Insanely talented dancers, percussionists, and singers told the history of South African music and dance. It was a crash history course at its most entertaining.

The following morning we made our first visit to our main service/volunteer sites: a village, and an after school drop-off center for children. The village, Erasmus, is the main opportunity with multiple placements including agriculture, recycling, and helping out with the children. At another village close by, some students will be volunteering in home based cared for the elderly and sick. Then some students will help at the drop-off center, aiding children in their homework who don't have a well-structured home environment. Everyone was nice and welcoming, and I can't wait to actually start volunteering - hopefully with the agriculture and the children. In a couple weeks we'll also have the opportunity to do service at orphanages. We ended the day with Themli boot camp and a game of soccer, a challenge for those less in shape, but entirely worth it.

That brings us back to the two days at the game reserve. Since the program is run by a Jesuit institution, we are starting and ending our five months with a opening and ending retreat. We spent the day in reflection, did fun group exercises, and spent some quiet time out in the sun. Finally the moment we were all waiting for came: our first safari. It was time to go past those gates in an open game drive vehicle. Within the first five minutes our guide/driver pointed out an elephant. Then we saw something I hadn't expected  - a dung beetle rolling dung across the rode. Our guide was incredibly experienced and cautious, noting when even smal creatures were crossing the road. Soon we saw countless wildebeests and zebras, a few kudus, and two ostriches. Then our guide got a call from another guide who had found a leopard - a rare sight. Stealthy and elusive as leopards are, people are lucky if they see one over the course of multiple safaris. We saw one less than an hour into our first game drive. At first we could only see the back of her head, but eventually she walked through to an opening which our guide knew how to find. Then we got to see her close up. She walked back and forth before eventually lying down. I was too in awe to manage any pictures, but I'll never forget finally seeing such a magnificent creature in the wild. We stayed for a while, but eventually we had to move on and let other groups get a look - plus we had other animals to find. And find them we did, including Egyptian geese, antelope, and more zebras and wildebeests. Adding to the beauty of the land was the sun setting and casting spectacular colours over the main watering hole. Near the end of our drive was the favourite find of many - two white rhinos. They were grazing and at one point started coming right towards our vehicle, not turning away until we had a good, long look. Considering their endangered status, it was an extra special experience. Even though we left the reserve, the animal spotting wasn't over for the night quite yet. Where the warthogs had been earlier in the morning, there were now several impala. And just outside the bungalow I was staying in with two others from our group, there was a zebra. Falling asleep, all I could think about was how there was a zebra mere metres away, and I couldn't be happier in that moment.

A zebra grazing with wildebeests.

We woke up bright and early the next morning for our second game drive. There was light in the sky, but the sun wasn't up. Many animals, however, were up, and the first two we saw were kudu females. Sitting near the front, I was able to witness a black-backed jackal crossing the road in front of us. When we drove past where it had crossed, the jackal had disappeared into the bush. Our guide then got a call about lions. We saw a few lionesses, but unfortunately they never came close to the road. They were still glorious to see, sauntering through the tall grass. Throughout the rest of the drive we saw animals both new to us and others we had seen the night before. Springbok, impalas, zebras, and wildebeests were numerous. Right next to the road we encountered giraffes, once which looked directly at us, almost as if posing for our cameras. Then we saw more elephants, and from a distance we saw hippos resting in water. Near the end we saw a young giraffe, and then on the other side of the gate breakfast was being served. We engaged in more reflection for the morning, had a delicious lunch, then made to pack up and leave. Monkeys hanging around the resort were there to send us on our way, an unexpected last animal sighting.

The giraffe that posed for us.
The safari, the leopard sighting in particular, was a dream come true. The retreat was a peaceful way to settle into South Africa. And the past weekend was only beginning. But more on that, and the rest of the week up until the present will be covered in my next blog entry which I will publish tomorrow.

Happy Weekend, wherever you are,

~ The Cloud Catcher

A zebra and her baby. All photos in this post are mine.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Don't Fall Asleep!

Photo of the 2013 Ubuntu group, courtesy of Mike Rezin.

That was the first challenge we faced in South Africa: stay awake against our internal clock set to Eastern Standard Time until it was night-time here in South African Standard Time. We arrived at the airport in Johannesburg at half past eight in the morning, which meant we had a whole day ahead of us to zombie through. A lucky few slept on the plane, but spending sixteen hours uncomfortably curled up against a hard arm rest didn't make for sound sleep. And this was after months of preparation which included obtaining police clearance, fulfilling a 14-item check-list in order to apply for a study permit, figuring out how to pack efficiently for a five month move, and saying goodbye to all we love.

Just who are we? We are a group of students from Fordham University in New York City who chose to study abroad in Pretoria, South Africa from the beginning of February until the end of June. We will be studying at the University of Pretoria through the Ubuntu Program. Yet this isn't any ordinary study abroad trip; it's specifically a service learning program through which we will volunteer within a nearby community and offer our help where it is needed at various sites. I, Julie Goetz, an Anthropology and Creative Writing student, will be blogging about our adventures.

Not falling asleep was far from easy, but our leaders and mentors kept us active with a long walk around the nearby athletic fields and gym where we'll be running, exercising, and playing football (known as soccer in the States). When the evening came around, we gathered in a local square to watch a football game between South Africa and Mali. The energy of the crowd kept me well awake until midnight - after the game had ended and we had walked back to the village.

The next day, Sunday, we explored the nearby Hatfield Plaza and Market and bought a few necessities. Then we had our first Themeli Boot Camp experience: running, exercises, and stretches - all to prepare us for football and to help us get in shape (or keep in shape for the athletes of the group). The altitude made breathing a difficulty even for the experienced runners of the group, but we should get used to it with time. After a trying workout, we were rewarded with a "braai," a barbecue, held to officially welcome us. Both food and conversation were great.

On Monday we had orientation for our study abroad trip. Jesuit leaders led us in some ice breakers and reflection exercises, plus handed out journals to each of us. Part way through the orientation, we went on a tour of the surrounding areas. We visited the Union Buildings, featured behind us in the group picture at the beginning of this entry. It is the official seat оf the South African government and аlsо houses the offices оf the President оf South Africa. Afterwards, we stopped at a huge mall to exchange money, buy adapters for our electronics, and eat lunch. Upon returning we finished orientation, then went to the nearby fields to play football. Unfortunately, rain kept us from playing , but we had an impromptu ab workout once we got back to the village. Then after dinner we took a long stroll as a group to walk one of our mentors to her home.

Tomorrow we have academic orientation, but we won't start classes until Monday - thank goodness! The rest of the week looks like a promising opportunity to settle into South Africa before having to deal with the craziness of school. I'm excited about taking classes with South African students, but it's nice to first have a chance to explore South Africa and learn about what it has to offer.

The best part of the trip so far happened within the first thirty minutes. On the way from the airport to the village we are staying in, I saw giraffes! I hadn't expected such a spectacular moment so soon, but I feel it is a sign of many more great animal moments and phenomenal moments in general to come in the next five months.