Day 636 – 26 November, 2016
Four hours from N/a’an ku se over bumpy and dusty roads, eight volunteers headed south to Neuras Wine and Wildlife Estate. An unlikely combination, Neuras has the distinction of producing the driest wine in the world deep in the Namib Desert, but after the van Vuurens’ bought the estate in 2012, it also became a research center in conjunction with N/a’an ku se’s wildlife. I was joined by Sanna from Finland, Oda and Andrea from Norway, Tia and Noor from Denmark, Rachel from Australia, and Seraina from Switzerland, rounded out by Miranda from the Netherlands and Chloe from the UK who had already been working at Neuras for a couple of weeks before us newbies arrived. We were all women with a median age of 19, yet a powerful bunch we were. Jeanette was our fearless leader who not only runs a successful research program, but also was our acting tour guide to drive us all over the desert in search of natural treasures and beautiful scenery.
We would be sleeping in a semi-permanent tented camp on elevated platforms. Each was equipped with a front porch, a dressing area and two twin beds with surprisingly indulgent mattresses (too bad my wake up call averaged 4:00am everyday!). We had battery-powered lanterns and thick wool blankets to ward off the chill that crept in as soon as the sun disappeared. Open-air bathrooms were shared between two tents. I especially liked the post-sunset shower so I could ogle the stars that reached the horizon on all sides. Locks on the tents were unnecessary, although baboon sightings were common so it was imperative to keep any edibles in a locked cabinet. I ate a vegetarian diet while in Namibia, but the meat eaters dined on oryx or ostrich that had been hunted by the estate’s staff.
Almost immediately after our unrelenting drive from N/a’an ku se, Jeanette explained that we needed to capture a leopard which had been accused of stealing a farmer’s livestock. A capture cage had already been set by a previous team, but it was necessary to reset the bait. When you’re trying to attract a leopard, catnip won’t do. You need something bloody and smelly and of substantial size. An unfortunate warthog had become trapped in a barbed wire fence a day or so prior and had perished from her injuries. Her deathly aroma was only just beginning to blossom so over the next few days she was to ripen in the hot desert sun in hopes of attracting our leopard. Noor, who plans to study medicine, volunteered to do the dirtiest work. She had to slice the warthog from sternum to bowel to release all of the innards before the creature was then tied to the back of the buggy, bouncing along behind as we drove so as to create a fragrant trail of guts all the way to the cage. The bait was complete only after Rachel wrapped a wire around the tusks and back legs to fold up a warthog package for easier handling. Subsequently, we pushed her inside, reset the trigger mechanism, and resolved to be patient.
The next morning Jeanette sent us on a scavenger hunt for GPS training. With two Garmin GPS devices, she gave us some coordinates and sent us off into the barren landscape to try our hand at getting lost and then found. We hopped a barbed wire fence and were soon completely engulfed in desert. The subtle hills, canyons, and rocky outcroppings obscured our view of the estate and we were on our own. It was a fun game actually as we moved between one pile of rocks to another. About halfway through the clues, Jeanette called us over the radio that we should return immediately. A leopard was in our cage….
Lightning, a female that has been collared longer than any other leopard in the wild, had found our warthog. The only problem being that she was the wrong leopard. Lightning was known to have a cub in the area and it was dangerous for both of them if she was in the capture cage for very long. After a briefing (that included “be quiet,” “no sudden movements,” “watch out for the cub who is likely nearby,” and “keep the windows closed and locked in your non-airconditioned transport”) and a chance to grab our cameras, eight of us piled into an old work van with a driver and one Japanese tourist who had been staying at the lodge. Chloe and Miranda rode with Jeanette and a few other staff members. In the noon sunshine, Lightning was perfectly visible to us even from our obstructed vantage point. She seemed frightened and not even a little bit happy.
To minimize the stress for Lightning, the plan was not to tranquilize her, but instead the team wanted to tilt the cage onto its side, fasten a rope to the door and to the back of a truck, and then gently tug the door open as the truck inched forward. It seemed to be the safest method for both the animal and the spectators. A team of lodge staff, including Jeanette, Chloe and Miranda, began removing the thorn bushes that had decorated the perimeter while others draped a blue tarp around the outside. The cage mostly consisted of small square vents on the top and sides, but the door had long vertical slats and would be the most vulnerable region to stand during this maneuver. Lightning’s roar could be heard even inside our hot and stuffy van that was parked several meters away. Every time she struck at the sides, the blue tarp would rattle and the team members would jump a little. Once in position, slowly they began to rotate the cage into the correct angle so they could pull the door when there was another roar, a gust of air behind the tarp, and one of the team members near the door jumped back reflexively. From the van, we could see the back of her yoga pants was torn and exposed a claw-shaped wound in the center of her hamstring. Well, isn’t that a lesson in the unpredictability of wild animals?? No time to spare, the remaining workers pushed the cage onto its side, fixed the rope and slowly slid the door open a few inches. Lightning emerged, paused for a second to glance directly toward our van, and then she vanished just as quickly into the scrub. Stitches weren’t necessary for the injury, but a thorough cleaning was the best we could do for a wound made by a claw that had previously been sunk into a decaying warthog.
To take the edge off, our evening was filled with a wine tasting and cheese tray as we learned about the discovery and production of the driest wine in the world. A volunteer’s life isn’t all hard work after all!
Our other tasks that week included using the GPS to hike several kilometers to change camera traps in isolated locations, game counts, and other mundane project work like building a contraption to flatten out the dirt service road. Most of this work was completed in the mornings so that in the afternoons, when the mercury climbed well past 40 C, we either catalogued photos from the camera traps or Seraina and I tried to build a spreadsheet to count any spotted hyena sightings in the area.
Jeanette was focusing her research on the spotted hyena and wanted to prove a correlation in the seasonality of sightings. As prey decreased with the dry season, hyenas were also predicted to decrease. She aimed to estimate their density and population structure, as well as their home range and prey preference by analyzing their scat. So far, twelve individuals had been identified.
Of course, the most important responsibility of the volunteers was feeding the cheetahs. At the time of my stay, Neuras had seven adult cheetahs in a 50 hectare enclosure. Every morning we would have to pull a frozen slab of meat out of the freezer for it to thaw by the afternoon, although it was often necessary to aid the thaw process for such a thick piece by hosing it down and prying it apart with a dull knife. A few staff members were responsible for hunting in order to feed the cheetahs and the lodge, but they would choose animals that were abundant in our game counts, like oryx, springbok, zebra, or ostrich. Incidentally, I definitely saw more dead animals that week than live ones and the smell of rotting flesh will forever be linked in my mind with Neuras.
Jeanette would drive our buggy to the cheetah enclosure while the volunteers would stand in the back. On instinct, the felines would see us coming and run alongside. Usually, we would greet them at the front gate and toss their feed from the safety of the gate, but on one occasion, we drove inside to a small wooden feeding platform about 100 meters from the entrance. These cheetahs had all been wild once and had taken to killing livestock (the easy prey) so they were perhaps the most dangerous type of cheetah to us humans (extremely easy prey). We held them at bay using long sticks while we climbed the steps to the platform. Unfortunately, cheetahs are not the smartest of cats so a stick seemed to be enough of a defense. Their specialized binocular vision, which is meant to spot prey from a long distance, proves to be very poor when faced with close up targets. We each had to hold a piece of meat, make sure our designated cheetah saw it, and throw just when they could follow the arc to know where it landed. In the cases where the cheetahs didn’t see the bloody dripping animal part land on the ground, they couldn’t find it on their own using their eyes or nose. We then had to toss small stones at the meat so that they could find it. I found it remarkable to see how their senses would fail them.
Sanna felt extremely uncomfortable inside the enclosure with seven drooling hungry cheetahs so the day that we returned for enclosure cleaning, she walked the perimeter making sure any warthog holes were filled in. Rachel and Tia stayed outside to taunt the cheetahs with more bloody carcasses while the rest of us snuck inside to clean up any bones and scat. I found it interesting that there were plenty of dried out cow patties that had been there several years before this enclosure had been built.
Our time at the lodge wasn’t all work, though. One day, Jeanette drove us to Sossusvlei to climb Dune 45 (Big Daddy) and to admire the salt pan at Deadvlei. The day started with a flat tire before the sun had even risen, but once we saw the dunes peeking above the horizon, you could feel the excitement buzzing like electricity in the van. While it’s highly unnecessary, many tourists in Namibia get around by overland truck tours so I consider us extremely lucky that on the day our small band of volunteers visited, it was also an off day for the overlands. The place was virtually empty. It doesn’t look so daunting from a distance, but propelling ourselves up the epic Dune 45 was no easy feat. Head down, one foot in front of another, mind over matter…one by one all of the volunteers made it to the top. The vista was a sea of sand and it was all ours. We had walked up barefoot so it was important that we leave the summit no later than 9:30am or else the sand would be too hot on our feet before we reached the bottom. Noor, Seraina, and Rachel practically dove in headfirst as we tumbled through the sand. One leap and a cushion of sand could catch you a few meters farther downhill.
The bottom of the dune deposited us right in front of Deadvlei, the valley where trees have been dead from 500-900 years already, yet they still proudly stand as mere shells in the dry desert air. It is an eerie landscape, especially when there aren’t any other camera-toting tourists in sight. It’s one of those vast places that makes you question time and space and your own significance in the universe.
We finished that outing with a fancy buffet lunch at an upscale resort and a dip in a sparkling emerald waterhole to take an edge off the heat.
On another day, Jeanette drove us to Naukluft for more hiking and swimming. We trekked through rust-colored canyons and were amazed by the amethyst and jade hues in the stones. Zebras mocked our unstable footing as they easily trotted up and over the gorge. We swam in yet another idyllic swimming hole and thanked our lucky stars for bearing witness to such stunning wilderness.
Our final night at Neuras was meant to be a sleep out and a braai, the traditional South African barbecue. The sleep out was effectively cancelled because we still had one more early game drive the next morning, but we prepped the volunteer area for a celebratory braai nevertheless. Sanna built the fire, while I tried to learn how to build a fire, and the rest of the ladies brought supplies from the lodge. Seeing as most of my fellow volunteers were Scandinavian, they showed me how to make Snobrod (Norwegians – I know this isn’t the right spelling, but my keyboard doesn’t make that letter!), the traditional camping bread that is grilled on a stick. Then there were sausages and oryx steaks and a variety of salads to be washed down with an ice cold Tafil. Gazing up at the stars while gathered around a robust campfire with lovely people, my time working with N/a’an ku se was coming to a close and I felt truly gutted by it. Meeting like-minded, strong and independent women was just icing on the cake after four weeks of quality time with some of Mother Nature’s most majestic creatures. Out of everything I’ve done in two years on the road, N/a’an ku se falls at the top of the list.