Water for Elephants

“We’ve got too many elephants in Kruger.”

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Good morning. I’m fresh from a 4 day safari in the South African bush in Kruger National Game Preserve. I’ve spent a fair amount of time outdoors in this life, but nothing could have prepared me for the unbelievable wildlife diversity that I have witnessed over the past 4 days.

I was picked up from my hostel in Johannesburg, slightly confused as I had planned to leave a day later. Instead, I ambled onto the bus after a half of a cup of coffee, trying to email Noah and Romola so that they didn’t think I’d been mugged and left for dead after I left them on Friday night.

The email didn’t send, and sure enough, I had an email in my inbox questioning my continued membership among the ranks of the living. I was fine though, and we’d arrived at the base camp on the western edge of Kruger in one piece.

On the drive out, I was treated to a decent sampling of South Africa’s agricultural industry. Mile after mile of irrigated corn, citrus and grape fields flew by my window. Some had massive nuclear reactors in the distance, which made for a startling contrast of wide open space to the 5 open coned reactor chimneys in the background.

As we drove, we started to see various species of wildlife near the road. Ostriches, buffalo and various antelope species were seen browsing through the fallow winter cornfields. I have seen many things in cornfields during my Indiana youth, but until yesterday, I have never seen a pack of 150-180 pound baboons having their run of the place. It was quite a surreal sight.

Upon arriving at base camp, we threw our stuff into our Spartan but clean rooms, making sure to lock our doors, not from the threat of theft, but to ensure that the monkeys didn’t help us unpack as we went on our sunset drive.

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Adam, our 24 year old guide from Fairfax, Virginia, was an excellent host as he piled us into the open air 4×4 to start the drive. Within 500 meters, we saw a small group of bachelor Cape Buffalo browsing near the road.

I laughed as I thought of PJ O’Rourke’s line in Parlaiment of Whores about Tipper Gore. Something to the extent of her uncanny resemblance to a Cape Buffalo and the need to shoot for the kill, as there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded Cape Buffalo.

We also saw several giraffes, antelope and impala species on our drive, before coming upon two “tusker” elephants, the size of which made my Asian elephant ride look like I was on the kiddie carousel outside of K-Mart.

These beasts were absolutely massive, and were pushing down trees as big around as my waist like they were bowling pins. I could’ve sat there and watched these big boys browse around in the fading sunlight for hours, but there was more to see.

Further down the path, we came upon some wildebeest, and the voice of Sir David Attenborough started to play in my mind as he narrated the “Great Migration” wherein several million wildebeest migrate thousands of miles across the plain. Adam got to take part in the “Great Migration” a few years ago, and said that it was an absolutely breathtaking experience to see that many animals, each almost as big as a Clydsedale moving with instinctual abandon.

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We finally made camp out in the bush, having a prepared dinner in a ring of pointy rocks (these supposedly dissuade charging elephants, thankfully I didn’t have to find out if it actually works.) As we sat and ate, we heard a larger herd of female and young elephants in the distance. To hear them cracking trees and stumbling across the plain as the mighty white carnivore gnaws on his chicken bone, well that was an ambiance that would be tough to replicate in a Manhattan restaurant.

The next day, we woke early and were taken out by Adam and Mombobo, a local guide for a 4 hour bush walk. While we weren’t coming face to face with many animals, (some hippos and an incredibly rare river otter notwithstanding) we were able to take some time to learn about actual life in the bush. From reading tracks, to discerning both species and freshness of dung piles, to learning which trees to burn and which to leave alone in a pinch, my savannah education is much further along than it was a week ago. The amount of information left in every square meter of the bush is astounding if you know how to process it.IMG_0338

 

The next day we travelled within the bounds of Kruger for nearly 10 hours. During this time we had not one, but two great leopard sightings. Words can’t describe seeing a cat like that in its natural habitat. It is both exhiliarting and terrifying, knowing that a predator of that size, speed and grace is within 30 meters of you. We watched this male for probably an hour, as he lazily stretched over a tree branch before finally becoming bored and stalking off across the plain. I was nearly shaking from the excitement of the whole thing. A leopard in a zoo will never compare.

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By the end of my journey, we’d identified nearly 50 different species of mammal and lizard, and countless birds. The guides all know to play to a Western audience by putting things in terms of Lion King characters whenever possible. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see a lion during our time at Kruger, only the day before a group we’d met had seen a pride of female lions take down and devour a giraffe, which must’ve been incredible.

Talking more with the guides about the state of affairs in the park, I was saddened by the news. Nearly 3 black rhinos are being poached every day. With the Eastern market (re:Chinese) paying nearly $150,000 US per kilogram of black rhino horn as an aphrodisiac (the average adult horn being between 4-6 kg) the incentives are massive. Kruger is a park the size of Wales, and patrolling that much is an impossible task. This year alone, nearly 600 rhinos have been killed for their horns, out of a population estimated to be 2500. In China, Dao elders have now made excommunication the ban for using such endangered species. Buddhists have always been against the senseless killing of animals, but the consumption at all costs culture of the Chinese elite continues to pay top dollar for these incredibly rare and beautiful creatures.

With respect to the quote at the beginning, the Kruger park has a carrying capacity of 10,000 elephants, and is currently running near 18,000. Most people would say more elephants are great, but the 400-600 kg a day that an adult African elephant eats, puts the ecosystem at risk if there are more elephants than the land can support. An adult will push over as mnay as 3 trees a day during the dry season to get ahold of the mosture and nutrients found at the root ball. The land simply can’t support that much destruction, even if it occurs naturally.

Therefore, hunting has to be allowed in Kruger. Many animal rights activists decry this, but it is for the good of the whole ecosystem. Adam thought that one could get an elephant permit for around $100,000, the money going directly back to conservation and anti-poaching efforts. I know my former boss will not eat at Jimmy John’s because of some pictures of Jimmy shooting large game in Africa, but in the case of the elephant, it is a necessary culling of a herd without natural predators. And if more land is bought to abut the preserve, that shooting will save more elephants than the one that was shot.

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Habitat destruction is a major issue. Adam kept bringing up the fact that there are 7 billion people on this earth and less that 2500 black rhinos. He has spent time going out to tag black rhinos, of the 20 he tagged in January, 3 have already been poached.

The effect this has on his psyche is marked, but he knows that there is really no way to combat the forces of a faceless market offering nearly one million dollars to people who scrape out a subsistence living.

Also, the farms that I saw on the way to Kruger have destroyed millions of acres of natural habitat. While it is funny to see a pack of baboons in a corn field, the fact remains that that cornfield is the one that is out of place.

Any farmer reading this, please don’t take a drink for a few minutes. We are destroying the natural habitat of lions, leopards, elephants, and rhinos for land that yields approximately 45 bushels per acre when planted in corn.

I put that statistic together last night and checked it 3 times because I was sure that I had made a mistake.

45 measly bushels per acre.

Even the worst farmland in Indiana will yield nearly 4 times that much in an average year, and we didn’t tear down any natural habitat for elephants to get it.

I sat and laughed at the absurdity of a world that allows this to happen. We’ve had more than enough food to feed the global population since the green revolution of the 1970s. Yet we are still scraping the most marginal of land, tearing down savannah, rainforest and jungle to do so.

Every action has an effect on this world. Even loading up that 3rd plate at Golden Corral.

 

Good Morning Johannesburg!

New continent new thoughts. I arrived in Johannesburg about 1:30 yesterday afternoon, after a hellacious 31 hour/2 layover journey from Singapore. The incredibly unhelpful women at the Ethiopian airlines counter in Singapore had me all nervous that I was going to get tossed back to the winds of international travel at immigration due to my lack of an onward plane ticket, but this ended up being a load of bollocks. The immigration agent I dealt with, an African named Jeremiah, was as polite and helpful as anyone I’ve dealt with on this trip, and I even ended up spending a few extra minutes shooting the breeze with him after my stamps had been graciously applied.

So I was off to a good start all things considered, and I was supposed to be getting picked up by a driver from the NBA at the Jo-burg airport, so this was going to continue to be a walk in the park.

Just like the commentators curse on a perfect game, as soon as the thought left my mind, things went catawampus.

My driver was no where to be seen, and the internet wouldn’t let me make phone calls, only shoot emails, so after a half hour I decided to take my chances and jump on the train.

I say take my chances not because I was overly concerned about getting lost, (although I only had a neighborhood and hotel name to go on) but because crime in Johannesburg isn’t so much an unexpected incident as the cost of doing business. I figured in broad day light, surely I’d be alright, although with 50 lbs of gear draped both over my back and front, I surely wasn’t going to be in much of a position to try to defend myself if I wasn’t.

So onto the train I went. It was pretty straightforward (other than the pricing, which I’m pretty sure I got hosed on, even though it was all computerized.) Soon I was jumping off at the Roseland stop, climbing into the early spring sun and looking around for the Hyatt.

I couldn’t find one, so I started looking for a restaurant or something with WiFi. I found a McDonald’s down the road, which of course, didn’t have WiFi, but I took a load off my feet to regroup and figured I’d ask around and maybe get lucky.

As soon as I sat down, a boy who I thought looked awfully Chinese/Malaysian sat down next to me. He was a school kid, as school must’ve just let out because there were all kinds of white kids in private school uniforms. He started to make conversation (something about a massive backpack just screams “talk to me”) and I asked him if he knew where I was going. He laughed and said he didn’t, but he asked if I knew where he was going.

Next year, he is headed to the University of Oklahoma to study biomedical engineering. He’s yet to find Oklahoma on a map, so he was ecstatic to find an American who would vouch for the place. I told him I’d never been there personally, but I did briefly date a girl whose dad was a dean out there and she’d spoken highly of the place. He seemed relieved by my milquetoast review.

Finally I found an old man who knew where the Hyatt was. I trudged down the road until I came to the place. Now at this point I was an oily, stanking mess. I’d been on a plane for nearly a day and a half, and hadn’t seen a real bed or shower in 48 hours. I waltzed right into the Hyatt like I owned the place however, and within 5 minutes, I’d talked one of the front desk girls into letting me up to use the spa while I waited for my friends.

God bless her. I felt like a new man after 30 minutes in the steam room, plunge pool and the spa.

I headed back down to the lobby to wait on Noah and Romola and was promptly joined by about 30 flight attendants from Luftansa, an airline that still knows how to hire lovely flight attendants. After chatting with a few from Colonge and Dresden, I saw Dikembe Mutumbo walk into the lobby, big as all outdoors.

For those of you who don’t know who Dikembe Mutumbo is, I’m sorry. He was one of the first true African players in the NBA, and also one of the funniest. I’m currently typing this without the help of internet, but I’d imagine that he is every bit of 7 feet tall, and I know that he has size 22 shoes because I put my own meager size 12 foot next to one and almost fainted that a man can be that big. I didn’t have the cajones to ask him to give his famous line after a big block (a finger wag complete with, “No, No, NO!”) but he was as nice a person as you could hope to meet.

Behind him came the smaller, but still incredibly large Noah. It was a watershed moment as this was the first time I’d seen somebody I’d known before the trip since Benny left on June 5. 2 months of making friends on the go has been a blast, but occasionally it is a nice warm feeling to see someone you’ve known for a while.

I gave him a hug, the best that a 5’10’’ guy can give a 6’8’’ guy a hug and he laughed and pointed at Romola 15 feet away in a corner of the restaurant, who had been there all day.

Myopic vision runs in the family.

We caught up and talked about what’s going on, both in the US, the world and at this Basketball Without Borders showcase. He started pointing out the various NBA personalities around the room, from players to scouts to the coach of the Raptors who was kind enough to later sketch out a few base offensive plays for Noah and me.

The whole thing was just a little surreal, especially for someone who has been backpacking through the jungle for most of the last 4 months.

I hung around for a few hours, attending a talk about apartheid by the first South African Olympic chair after Mandela’s election. Finally I headed off to my hostel, as my budget wasn’t going to allow me to stay in the $150 a night Holiday Inn next door to the Hyatt where Noah and Romola were staying.

I initially thought about taking the train and then walking. That idea was blasted out of the sky like a Minnesotan duck on opening day. Everyone kept trying to impress upon me, “it isn’t IF you’ll get robbed out there by yourself tonight, it is a when.” I saw the wisdom of their words and jumped into a car arranged by the hotel.

It was quite a cab ride. I spoke with the driver on the way, and we drove past beautiful home after beautiful home, all surrounded by 8-10 foot walls and razor wire. I’m not talking a few; I’m talking every single one. The streets were beautiful, clean and tree lined, but there is obviously a vein of crime running unseen that is not to be messed with.

Whatever progress has been made since the fall of apartheid, there is infinitely more work to be done.

When I finally arrived at my guesthouse, it too was surrounded by a razorwire wall and had not one but two gates that had to be opened before I could enter. It is unlike any hostel I’ve stayed at yet though.

Once a single-family mansion, it was converted at some point into a hostel with one 20 bed dorm and several 4 bunk bedrooms. The place is beautifully designed, and for some reason reminded me strongly of my great-grandmother. Heinz, the proprietor was working when I rolled up. He let me in, started a tab in case I wanted to have a few drinks, and showed me the grounds. I could tell that the grounds were fantastic because no one was allowed out after dark. Even as I sit here writing this post at 7AM, a girl is trying to go run, but can’t get out of the compound to do so.

Danger really does abound in this beautiful land.

Today it is back to the BwB showcase, with some scrimmages and maybe another round of village visits this afternoon. I’m excited to see more of the area, as I’ll only be in Jo-Burg for about another 2 days before heading over to the Kruger National Park on the Mozambique border. I can’t wait to see some of the most naturally beautiful land on earth, as well as take part in a few game drives with rhinos, lions, cheetahs and the like in their natural habitat.

The world is always offering a new adventure, just make sure you don’t get mugged along the way.