Thursday, June 27, 2013

Something new!

Hello, friends and family!  I’m sorry that it’s been so long since my last post.  It has been an incredibly busy past couple of weeks and I have been absolutely exhausted!  Plus today is my first day off in 9 days, we’ve been that busy!  I wanted to share with you some of the awesome things that I have gotten to take part in recently.

Table Mountain view from Blaauwberg - two crazy surfers in the water

Some of you that have researched Drakenstein Lion Park may know that this past November we took in several animals from a zoo that was closing in the area.  They gave us two tigers, two white lions, goats, llamas, an ostrich, Shetland ponies, two caracals, six chimps, New Guinea Eclectes parrots, wallabies, duikers, spoonbills, ducks, and marmosets.  The tigers and lions were incorporated into the lion park, but the chimps, marmosets, parrots, waterfowl, duikers, and wallabies we built a whole new part of the park to accommodate them.  So this area is Chimp Haven.  Now that you all know this I can go on with my story!

The past couple of weeks I was taught how to care for all of the “small animals” on that side.  So everything minus the chimps.  The chimps are highly intelligent animals and we have to be careful about new people around them etc.  In the morning I dice fruit and vegetables into tiny pieces for little mouths to be able to eat.  I start with the parrots.  I go right into their enclosure with them and switch out food bowls, give them fresh water, pick up discarded food.  At first they didn’t like me at all.  They screamed in my ears and buzzed around my head constantly.  But after two days, they came right around to me.  The males especially will follow me around, begging for the best tidbits of food, nibbling at my clothes and hair, trying to rip open my rubbish bag.  They are really quite sweet! 

One of the males begging for the best bits of food (sorry for the poor quality)

The little antelope, wallabies, waterfowl and spoonbills are very easy to care for as they only need horse/duck pellets, lucerne, and chicken (for the spoonbills).  The marmosets are my favorite though.  At first, they hid from me when I went into the enclosure to switch out food bowls and clean their water.  But now when they see me coming they start chirping, follow me along the enclosure and wait for me by the door, all lined up in a row along a branch.  It’s usually five of them, the mother and her baby are still wary of me.  One of the young ones climbs all over me, and they all want a specific piece of food.  So one will want a raisin, while another will want a pea, another cheese, another a little slice of banana.  I love how I can hold out a little piece of food, they curl their little hands around my fingers and take the food gently with their mouths.  I’m also starting to see a difference in personalities with them as well.  I just love them, even though they stink like a European man that hasn’t bathed in a month.  

Daddy marmoset with baby peeking over the back - I think the baby looks like an ewok

I am coming around to the chimps.  First of all, the chimps absolutely terrify me to high hell.  I’ll be walking around the lion park and will hear all six of them start screaming/going-freaking-insane at once and it makes the hair stand on end all over my body and all I want to do is run for shelter for fear that one escaped and will come rip my arms from their sockets.  Besides that, I was told that the chimps actually genuinely like me and they watch me go about my work all the time.  Angus will wait for me to come inside the night room (where their night enclosures are) to get feed and lucerne, and then he will wave at me from his enclosure.  As soon as I go outside, he goes outside to wait for me and wave to me again before he goes about his business.  Charlie, the youngest of the chimps, watches me while I clean the parrots’ enclosure and will ‘dance’ with me through the fence.  When I talk to him he will also sit there and grin at me like a little goblin.  Then Emma sits and watches me work as well and just smiles at me.  They really are extraordinary animals.  It amazes me at how much speech they understand. 

As for the lions, well they have been great as usual.  With the weather getting cooler and wetter, the lions become more and more active.  They are always extremely loud at night, although it has become my own little lullaby.  And they are up and about much more often during the day now.  I’ve also gotten the chance to feed more lions, which has been fun.  I guess Paul has decided that my aim has improved enough for me to throw more (hah).  Paul is still just as chipper as ever – always speaking to me in his best redneck “American” as possible.  He even does it over the radio, which is hysterical. 

I am still very much loving my life here in Africa.  I constantly marvel at my surroundings and always find myself wondering if this could possibly be real.  I’ve been here for two months already and it still hasn’t sunk in yet that this is my life!  I’ve found a great circle of friends that have become family, I’m constantly surrounded by lions, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.  I hope that you all find joy in every day, no matter where you are.


Monday, June 10, 2013

The little things

Continuing on the Game of Thrones note (and, no, I have not been keeping up with the show, but I am through all 5 books) I wanted to share a nerdy connection I made today.  I am currently working at Drakenstein Lion Park.  The lion park gets its name from the Drakenstein Mountains in the area.  And the literal translation of “Drakenstein” is Dragonstone!  All of you GoT people out there will catch that reference.  I’m LIVING on Dragonstone, people!  Not that I fancy myself a Baratheon, honestly I think I’m more of a Tully, but it’s cool nonetheless.  

Asad - one of the young lions

 Anyways, back to life among the lions.  This week was pretty exciting in that we did some heavier building.  But first let me explain a little about our younger lions.  When lions are less than two years of age, they tend to climb a lot.  They are learning, exploring their territory, testing their limits.  We currently have two lions under two years of age (and they are cute boys too!) and they are both starting to fill into their manes.  But you can tell there is still a lot of cub left in them.  Little Leo is one of the young boys, and let me tell you – he is a character!  Every time you walk between the perimeter fences he stalks you in the grass, totally oblivious to the fact that you can see him quite well.  You will see his shoulders going up and down, tail flicking back and forth before he rushes the fence to scare you. 

Every lion has what is called a holding camp, which is connected to their larger enclosure.  The holding camp is used to hold them while we go into the large enclosure to clean (pick up feces, feathers, fill in holes they dug, clean water trough, fix any broken fencing, etc.).  We lure them in with a chicken for them to eat, so we can safely go inside.  With Little Leo, though, he doesn’t like to go into his holding camp.  We think he fears going in because he doesn’t know how he can get back to his territory (his safe place).  So we worry that because of this fear, when we do get him into his holding camp, he will try his hardest to get out and back to his territory – at no matter what cost.  This is not only unsafe for us, but it’s dangerous for Leo to climb, get nasty shocks from the electric fence (which HURTS, by the way – it knocks you flat on your behind – and I would know because it happened to me last week), destroy the fencing, and be under such stress.  The last thing we want is for the lions to be stressed or unhappy.  So Paul (aka Dr. Xavier) decided that we needed to build him a house in his holding camp.  

Johan putting on finishing touches with Leo right behind him

 It took us about two days to complete the house, but we had so much fun doing it!  We built it right up to the sliding gate between the holding camp and the large enclosure, so that Leo can just go right inside his new house, eat his chicken, and not panic.  Basically the house is four-sided with a top and just an entrance.  It’s all thick half-round planks, too, so we did a lot of heavy lifting and hammering in 6-inch nails.  Jason (aka Flash Gordon) and I had races to see who could pound in the nails the fastest.  And I beat him more often than not.  That’s what happens when your dad loves construction and uses his children as his little minions (and also when you work in set construction in college for 4 years as well).  Poor Jason. 

But the coolest thing in the world about this whole building process was that Leo was right at the fence the whole time, watching what we were doing!  How many people can say that they spent the whole day being inspected by a young lion?  He hasn’t quite developed his roar yet, either, so he spent a lot of time “snarling” at us and telling us who was boss (just picture Simba in The Lion King trying to roar).  Honestly, I think that it’s the most amazing thing.  And I don’t think that anyone can understand unless they have sat, mere inches away from a lion’s face, and felt the sheer power of just his gaze.  (Sidenote, Leo has the coolest eyes – they are a deep reddish brown)  There is something about staring into such a powerful and intelligent animal’s eyes.  I will think more on this thought, and elaborate more in another post.  

Leo watching us work

 I am quite tired from today’s work!  Anyways, dear friends and family, I hope life is treating you all well and that you are finding happiness in the little things.  Because that’s what life is, isn’t it?  A whole bunch of little things strung together?  And everyone deserves to be just as happy as I am right now.  So, God bless.  I wish you well all the way from South Africa.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"You don't throw like a girl, do you?"

Well I guess it’s finally winter here.  I was thinking today that I must be a character in Game of Thrones, because I’ve put myself into a year of eternal winter (the Starks’ motto is “Winter is Coming”).  I guess I didn’t think about that when I was planning this trip, but it’s true.  I left Michigan just as winter was about to leave, come to Africa for a few weeks of paradise, then hey!  It’s winter again!  However, I think I’d take an African winter over a Michigan winter any day!  The days are pretty mild – usually some rain and a cool wind.  But when it rains here, it either mists or pours, sometimes with hail that makes it look as if it snowed.  The wind cuts right through you, so much so that I broke down and bought a pair of rain pants I was so cold during the day’s work.  I’m thinking about getting a new rain jacket as well because my so-called “rain jackets” from the North Face aren’t actually completely waterproof OR windproof as they were advertised to be.  What a waste of money, I’m telling you.    

One of my favorite things: riding in the back of the bakkie down "gum tree lane"

The nights are incredibly cold without any sort of heating in my cabin. My grandmother found it exceptionally funny when I explained to her what I wear every night to bed under not three or four, but eight blankets, so I figured I would repeat it to you.  Two pairs of socks, leggings, sweatpants, under armour shirt, sweatshirt with hood up, hat and scarf.  Yes, it’s excessive, I know.  But it’s necessary. 

A small part of me dies inside when I think about leaving here and returning to snow on the ground.  My year of eternal winter.  I’m gonna punch you in the face and skop jou kop af, Winter.  Ok, end of slightly-depressed-but-really-rubbing-it-in-your-face-that-I’m-in-Africa-and-you’re-not rant.

Yeah, that's right.  This is where I live. TIA (This. Is. Africa.)

This past week sank into a routine, but one thing different about it really stood out to me that I thought was exciting.  You might not, but I’m a nerd about lions, so I’m going to tell you anyways.  Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 4 o’clock, the cats are fed.  It’s actually the most popular time of day for people to come to the park, and rightly so because the lions and tigers are extremely active in the hours leading up to the feeding.  Paul, the owner (“boss-man” as I like to call him), rides on his quad-bike with a wagon of dead chickens behind it while the staff follows closely to either throw the chickens to the lions over the ten foot tall fences or to monitor guests and make sure they don’t irritate the lions/get in the way of us.  On Wednesday I approached Paul and I’m just going to reiterate the conversation because I found it so funny.

K: “Hey Paul, think I could throw a chicken sometime?”
Paul: “You don’t throw like a girl, do you?”
K: “Paul…do I look like I throw like a girl?  I mean, come on, I have three brothers.”
Paul: “You won’t hit the electric fence?”
K: *Sassy eyebrow look*
Paul: “Ok, Friday then.”

Friday, Paul points to me and tells me to throw to Simba (female).  I launch the first chicken perfectly over the fence, grab three more and put them all in a neat pile in front of Simba.  I look over at Paul, who looks at me completely surprised, smiles and says, “Ok, you’re throwing to Ziyanda, too.”  I carefully throw my chickens to Ziyanda (you have to be cautious not to accidentally hit her because she would try to go through the fence and kill you if you did) and manage not to hit her. 

Paul: “Well, I admit it, you have quite the arm.  But your aim is s**t!”  He grins, throws six chickens for Ares (our blind lion) into a neat pile, salutes me and gets back on his quad-bike.

He had me throw again on Monday.  I guess I wasn’t so bad after all. 

Anyways, my friends, that’s all I’ve got this time.  I have a lot going on the rest of the week, including an exciting girls’ night out on Friday, to look forward to.  So next time will be more interesting I’m sure!  Hope you’re all well and enjoying every moment of life as much as I am!