Cat House

Nancy Vandermey, Author
South Africa Trip Sept 99

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Flying to Africa is not easy. Only South African Air goes direct from NY or Miami to Jo'burg, I flew United to London then Virgin Atlantic to Jo'burg, both 11+ hour flights. On the way there I had a 12 hour layover to go explore London, so at least that broke up the trip. Arrived in Jo'burg 9 am on Saturday. Picked up by Bob of Somerset Geust House, who was also our chauffer while in Jo'burg. Met up with the group I'd be travelling with - Dawn Simas of Wild About Cats (WAC) organized this tour, and all of us knew her one way or another. We were all from California, including animal trainer Hayden from Canyon Country, his mother Edie, WAC member Barbara, board secretary Connie, her husband Jerry, WAC volunteer Amy, and her friend Caroline. Our first trip was to a "flea market', which was sort of a swap meet/native curio stand shopping area. It was good to familiarize myself with the local artwork & curios & prices, so I knew what to look for on the rest of the trip. Saturday night was dinner at the Carnivore, a restaurant that serves 'bushmeat' - game animals. On the menu for that night were wildebeest, gemsbok (oryx), venison sausage, and crocodile, in addition to various steaks, pork, and chicken. All meat are grilled rotisserie-style, and carried around the restaurant on skewers by the cooks - you can try any or all the meats you want. The gemsbok and wildebeest were both very tasty, with an intersting sweetish, gamey taste. The crocodile tasted like bland chicken. Thus began a long week of gluttony - this certainly wasn't a trip for dieters! (Amy and Caroline, semi-vegetarians, ate a lot of fish. Kingclip is a wonderful local fish.)

On Sunday Bob drove us to the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre (http://www.dewildt.org.za), world famous for pioneering research into captive breeding of cheetahs, and birthplace of the first captive born king cheetah. They've have so much success breeding cheetahs they now only breed them when they're "ordered" by a zoo, release site, or private owner, and they now have a large breeding group of African wild dogs, and are beginning programs for the African wild cat and blackfooted cat. Alan Strachan, who runs the place for Ann van Dyk, gave us a tour and introduced us to several cheetahs. We met a 3 month old male king cheetah being hand raised, and an 11 month old handraised male king. The 11 month old is in an enclosure with his 3 brothers and sisters who aren't hand raised. Our whole group went in with these cats. The 'wild" (nonhandraised) cats don't attack - cheetahs are fairly nonagressive, in the wild they retreat when threatened by other predators. Cheetahs are pretty different tempermentally from other big cats, it was unusual to have 9 strangers walk in with 4 large cats, especially with 3 of them being mother-raised! We kicked around a soccer ball for the 4 cats. We also met a 2 year old female, Annie, daughter of Gillian. Dawn and WAC purchased two cheetahs from DeWildt last year, a brother and sister whose mother is Gillian.

We also saw honey badgers, meerkats, tortoises, several vulture species, and various other animals DeWildt is home to. We went on a driving tour of the large compound, seeing many more cheetahs, a brown hyena named Robert, and several breeding packs of wild dogs. There's a wild dog enclosure that the truck drives through, and the dogs "hunt" the truck, which is delivering their dinner- Eukanuba dog food. We also drove through a cheetah compound - the mother-raised cheetahs in there didn't appreciate the tour guide talking before feeding them! After spending several hundred rand (US$1=SAR6) in the gift shop, Alan took us to the small cat breeding area. The blackfooted cats, or "little spotted cats" as they're often called in Africa, were at a different facility, but we met their 8 or so African wild cats, including one tame one - a female in heat, so she was VERY friendly! They also have one serval in this area. DeWildt also has a few caracals, but they don't breed either servals or caracals as neither are endangered. Dawn and Hayden had left at about noon to drive to the Madikwe Game Reserve and meet with their head vet Markus - Hayden wants to start an elephant fundraising organization similar to Dawn's WAC, and Madikwe is one of the main elephant reserves in the country, with over 300 animals. The rest of us spent the night at the local home of a DeWildt volunteer, Frannie Clark. Frannie made a local South African dish, "babootie", which is Malay-influenced - a curry/mincemeat dish with flavored rice, very delicious!

The next morning Bob picked us up and took us to the Jo'burg airport for a flight to Durban. We almost missed the flight, as rush hour traffic is pretty bad. Pretoria and Jo'Burg are in the process of merging into one large metropolis, with suburbs being built inbetween. There's also a large shantytown, with over 1 million inhabitants. South Africa has an over 40% unemployment rate, and a high crime rate because of that. All the homes we saw were surrounded by razor wire, tall gates, and/or electric fences. The white Afrikaaners complained a lot about the crime, which is horrific (robbery/rape/carjacking), but as Americans we mostly had the attitude that apartheid had gone on so long that you can't expect everything to be perfect just a few years later. It was strange to hear someone answer the question "how many people work here" with "we have 4 white staff and 18 black staff". Dawn and Hayden were supposed to meet us at the airport, but had a flat tire leaving Madikwe and so planned to catch a later flight from Jo'burg to a small airport farther north from Durban.

Jeremy of Far&Wild Safaris met us in Durban with a VW minibus "kombi" and trailer, for our copious luggage. It also carried our food & supplies for the next several days. We got a quick tour of Durban - very pretty town, much less crime than Jo'burg. We passed an open air market with vendors selling many native animal & herbal products - hides, monkeys, owls, bark - not sustainably harvested, most likely. We then drove up the coast of the Indian Ocean, passing many hectares of sugar cane fields, before passing out of the 'white' farming area into Zulu 'territory'. Here Zulu people still live in traditional reed huts with thatched roofs, wealth being expressed in terms of how many head of cattle you own (a wife costs 11 head). The land is nutritionally poor, and only yields crops for a few years without fertilizers, so the natives slash & burn the forest and move their settlements every few years.

We arrived at the St Lucia Game Reserve and immediately saw our first wildlife, a warthog, zebra, and wildebeest. South Africa no longer has completely free-ranging wildlife, it only survives in fenced game reserves. The reserves are large, but often active management is needed to make sure one species or another isn't becoming too dominant. That's where the game meat for the Carnivore restaurant comes from - many reserves have to cull hoofstock to keep the reserves healthy. We also saw vervet monkeys, nyala, reedbuck, and bushbuck. We arrived at the Cape Vidal campgrounds about 4 pm. Jeremey had been teasing us earlier about arriving early enough to pitch tents, but we knew he was joking. The cabins were spacious and clean, a hundred feet from the sand dune beach. We explored the coral outcroppings and made plans to get up early to watch the sun rise and go snorkelling. Jeremy cooked a wonderful meal of paella. His coworker Keith was to pick up Dawn and Hayden and meet us there - but Keith arrived alone. Dawn and Hayden missed another flight, this time because they got lost. South African roads aren't marked very well, if at all.

The next morning I was the only one up at 5:59 am to see sunrise over the Indian Ocean. I went snorkelling in the tide pools, as did Amy and Caroline, then we all packed up and drove to Mission Rocks for a hike down to a large cave where thousands of Egyptian fruit bats normally live. There were only a few hundred bats there - most had moved up to Kruger park, we were told. Then we drove to Umfolozi/Hluhluwe Game Reserve, a large national game park. We saw 2 elephants through the trees right near the entrance! We were staying at Muntulu Bush Lodge in the Hluhluwe section of the park. On our way there we saw every sort of cat food (oops, excuse me, hoofstock) - herds of impala, zebra, wildebeest, warthogs, and nyala. They were all feeding on the tender new green grass growing in recently burned areas. Our timing was impeccable - it had rained the previous week, so the first new grass of the year was everywhere. It was springtime in Africa, the perfect time to visit.

Muntulu Bush Lodge is great - 4 individual huts and a dining/kitchen area, all with thatched roofs, set on a bluff overlooking the Hluhluwe river, home to hippos and crocodiles. Keith met us there with Dawn and Hayden, so Jeremey and Keith stayed over at Hilltop Camp, as there wasn't room for them at Muntulu. We went on a game drive in our two VW's that evening, and saw several white rhino, including a mom & baby, and closeup zebra, crocodile, nyala, and water buffalo. Nyala are very interesting antelope, with high sexual dimorphism- the males and females look very different. That night Jeremy cooked us a wonderful filet mignon dinner, and we sat around the campfire admiring the Southern hemisphere stars.

The next morning we were up bright & early for a 6 am walk in the bush, led by ranger Erik. He had a gun, but they're not supposed to use it (except to hit animals on the head with). The hoofstock, which don't mind vehicles being nearby, run away when they see people on foot. However, rhinos *don't* run, they are curious, and may even approach you (white rhinos) or charge (black rhinos). We scared some impalas, saw an old buffalo skull under a tree, and then walked right next to a mother rhino & young, maybe 50 feet away. Hayden spotted a dung beetle and picked it up - he's fascinated by them. In the afternoon was another game drive, going down to a river where we saw a large monitor lizard, several hippos in the water, and various birds - a jicana, green sided heron, and African fish eagle, among others. On the way back I got my best baboon photos - baboons were everywhere, but they didn't hang around for photos most often. In the evening was another bush walk, the highlight of which were giraffes - 4 adults feeding amongst low trees, and then a beautiful young giraffe calmly standing near the trail, backlit by the setting sun. We got close to more rhinos, this time about 20 feet away! Oxpecker birds were hanging out on these rhinos. An interesting thing about rhinos is their middens (rhino outhouses). Great fertilizer for the new grasses! We also saw more warthogs, a large gibbon-necked vulture, and an incredible sunset on the way back to camp.

That evening we had guests over for dinner - Dave Balfour, head ecologist of the reserve; Dave Cooper, who is the head veterinarian; and a young couple working on the lion introduction project at Umfolozi/Hluhluwe. The lions at this reserve are inbred, all being descended from a male and two females, so recently 6 lions were released into the park. We talked with the two Daves about the ongoing tuberculosis problem at the reserve, and in most reserves in the area - much of the hoofstock is infected with TB, which carnivores can catch by eating infected animals. Interestingly, hyenas do not catch TB - they can eat filthy, disease-ridden carcasses, and stay healthy.

After one more bush walk in the morning, where we saw a male waterbuck, it was time to leave Umfolozi/Hluhluwe. On the drive out, we were lucky - a small rhino was about to cross the road, and we wondered where its mother was - but, it turned out to be an adult black rhino! It crossed the road right in front of us. We stopped at the Zulu curio stand at the exit and helped the local economy by purchasing gifts and souveniers. At 6 rand to the dollar, beautiful handmade items are cheap by our standards. Next stop was DumaZulu Cultural Center, where they reenact traditional crafts, customs, and costumes for visitors. The Zulu dancing was spectacular.
Next stop was our third and last game reserve, Phinda, a private reserve. This is a 5 star kind of place, both in accomodations and food. The individual lodges are built on stilts to not disturb the sand forest, each set privately in the woods, with a granite floored luxurious bathroom. The daily schedule (included in cost of staying there) was: meet at 6 am, tea/coffee/cookies, 6:30 am game drive, stop for juice/snack during drive, back by 10 am for full breakfast, lunch from 1 till 2, meet at 3:15 for evening game drive, cake/tea/iced tea/coffee, sunset stop for cocktails & snack, back by 8 pm for dinner. Yep, they fed us 7 times a day! And the meals were gourmet - including a nyala stew one evening. Yum, more bushmeat! Everyone has a personal ranger that does your game drives - ours was Gavin, a 21 year old of English descent. He had a great sense of humor and made the game drives very fun. One big difference between a private reserve like Phinda and the national reserves is that the rangers can go off the roads to follow/find animals, and the rangers are in touch by radio so if one makes a good find others can join in. We saw many animals on our drives, including wildebeest, elephants, genets, mongeese, batelieur eagles, suni antelope, water buffalo, and giraffe. Most of us decided to go for a scenic flight one morning, and flew over the local area up to the Indian Ocean, Lake St Lucia, native Zulu land, and the Phinda reserve.

One evening drive, Gerry spotted a leopard near the road - and it was still daylight out! I didn't have my camera ready, by the time I saw the cat & got my camera up he was running away from the road. But, we followed him into the bush. We stayed a respectful distance away, and it was very overcast and twilight, and I was handholding a 3 pound zoom lens with doubler (800mm) in a moving truck - so needless to say most of my pictures are blurry, but at least I got them! Seeing a wild leopard was my dream for this trip, and to catch one in daylight and follow him was unbelievable - Gavin was shocked too. The leopard moved a few times, and we followed, so eventually he got bored and took a nap.

As night fell we moved on, because Gavin knew where the lions were - they had killed a wildebeest, and were feasting. It was dark when we got there, but with the powerful spotlight the rangers carry we could watch the pride of 8 lions crunching away at the kill. After our cat-filled evening, there was a large lighting storm during dinner, and that night it started raining. We had had perfect weather until then, and the area really needed the rain.

Despite a continuing drizzle in the morning, we went out for a game drive - our last one :-( We told Gavin to find us a cheetah, and he did - about 10 minutes before we planned to head back to the lodge! We were a group of wet, bedraggled looking rats, and I worried about my camera gear, but I got a wild cheetah picture.

It was time to leave the reserves. Most of the group was going on from Durban to go surfing and/or to Cape Town, but Edie, Hayden & I flew back to Jo'burg to spend one more night at the Somerset Guest House with Bob & Gaye before the long flight home. We toured the Jo'Burg Zoo, and dropped our last few rand at the flea market curio stands, before packing everything up for the long flight home.