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