Letter 2: Oct. 17, 2005
We arrived back from our first two-week trip to a Pretoria
transformed. The rains came late last week, and the
jacaranda are in full bloom. Lavender petals scatter across
the red clay soil of the paths leading into the University.
Everyone is well, rather sun-burned, and preparing for
lectures, a mid-term examination and the ENVS 84 paper. We
are also eagerly awaiting Prof. Ross Virginia, our "Swooper"
this term, who will arrive on the 27 October and lead the
trip through the Namibia Desert, the world's oldest,
starting 31 October.
But I get ahead of my story, and the term.
We left Pretoria on 30 September in a coach (which was
boarded momentarily by two young women who thought we were
the "Turtle" bus to Durban!!!). The drive northward to
Polokwane (previously Petersberg) takes one out across the
high veld through South Africa's agricultural belt, where we
saw early spring plantings of maize, peas, wheat on
irrigated farming. Nets already protect horticulture,
including new grapes, from the fierce sun.
At Polokwane we turned eastward and started the journey down
into the low veld country. This transition carried us from a
rich agricultural landscape to mountainous plantations of
eucalyptus and evergreen (for paper, and mine construction)
and then down into the dry, scrub bush veld which is the
Africa of TV: umbrella acacias, mopane, and the first wild
animals: baboons, vervet monkeys, girafes.
"JC" Strauss met us in Phalaborwa, a small Afrikaner
community with a very green park in its center, and took us
to his camp on the Oliphants River. Unfortunately, the
drought has reduced the Oliphants to two narrow tranches of
water, and there are continuous complaints from Kruger
National Park management downstream about pools in that park
lowering rapidly, hippos coming out of the water during the
day and blistering in the sun, fish dying. Water, as it
always is in this dry savannah region, is the principal
topic of concern. Not surprisingly, the rains that fell in
Pretoria brought people out into the streets in joy and
The students, Kathleen and I spent three days with "JC"
learning "bush survival" and tracking skills. I like this as
an introduction to the African bush for our students, since
it teaches them to be alert to and aware of their
environment, and its starts to give them confidence to take
care of themselves here.(For example, did you know that you
can put wet sand into a clean sock [OK, dirty, if urgent],
and squeeze water out of it?) We also went out on the river
to watch and listen in silence as the African day slipped
into night, the Southern Cross appeared low in the horizon,
hippos grunted, the hyenas and jackels took up their calls,
and startled elephants rumpted from the far bank.
We slept along the river, and at night hippos grazed around
our tents. Kathleen and I, and the students next door, could
hear them munching the river grasses.
Our first plenary in the field, led by Victoria, Jeff, Kevin
and Catrina, discuss what we had seen on our trip into
Phalaborwa and what we had learned in our first few days
there. But perhaps the highlight of this part of the trip
came before "JC" famous final tracking examination. This is
the "Bok Dre Spoeg" or "Antelope Pellet Spit" in which
student (volunteers!) try to see who can spit a kudu or
impala "pellet" (dropping) farthest. Jeff was the winner
for the guys, with a spit of 22 feet, but Victoria nailed
the championship with a spit of 27 feet. I cannot yet
determine the academic value of this exercise, and will
consult my colleagues, but I remain convinced that every
Dartmouth student should complete the course in bush skills,
tracking and the "Bok Dre Spoeg" before graduation. Maybe
this should be for gym credit?
In the field we tracked elephant, hippo, many antelope
(kudu, impala, steenbok, waterbuck, etc., and identified
birds (the African hawk eagle was a favorite). We darted a
male elephant to take a DNA sample for the global protection
program that should make tracking poached ivory easier.
As with past programs, the five days at Timbavati were
filled with studying and tracking and the famous "lost"
exercise. This year we had two elephant researchers join
us,and the group divided into thirds to go into the field
with them. Maybe the best experience came to Victoria, Amy,
Jake, Christine, Danny, Catherine when they "entered" a
female breeding herd in their vehicle (with the elephant
researchers), turned off the motor and sat for more than an
hour as the elephants grazed and browsed around them, nursed
tiny youngsters, rumbled in communication, and one bull
slowly walked right up to Danny and stood tusk-to-his-eyeball.
Meanwhile, the rest of us worked on water issues and seep
line construction, and we learned how the ecosystem defends
itself during drought. (The acacias take up tannen; the
appleleaf or rain tree produce excretions that are bitter to
the taste, the belly thorn is home for ants to bite girafe
and other leaf-eaters to cause them to move along in their
My compass team -- Catherine, Addie, Jeff, Nicole, Lissa --
did well in the "lost" exercise. We were blindfolded, taken
out into the bush with an armed guard, and with blindfolds
removed and using only a compass and a map had to find out
eway back. I always worry that I might miss dinner on one of
these exercise,s but the team as good and got the Ol' Prof
back in time for his daily cup of bush tea.
We examined controlled burning and grassland issues in
Kruger National Park, indigenous comunities, lion tracking,
and tourism in Tembe and Ndumo Elephant Reserves, and then
gave the students the day off last Saturday. We drove out to
one of the finest beaches along the Indian Ocean, for
snorkeling and a dip on a very hot day.
I am rushing through this since the University may lock me
into the building. The place closes down at 6 PM. In all, a
successful, somewhat difficult (heat, grit), and exciting
time in the field. I think for many of the students the work
with indigenous communities outside Ndumo will stay with
them longest: the poverty, the hopes that eco-tourism may
bring them a path out of that poverty, their kindnesses to
us, their sincere connections with each of our students.
We celebrated two birthdays in the field: Laura Glickman was
introduced to the inflammable elephant dung cake, which
burst into flames upon presentation and then could not be
put out. (There was also a delicious cake, with candles,
made over a wood fire and brought to Laura by Africans
singing in celebration of her.) Danny got the treatment,
also: Zulu dancers from a nearby village who came to our
camp (invited by Kathleen!!!!!) and made him sit in a chair
of honor while they danced around him. This is not what
visitors normally see; in fact, many people from the
community joined us to watch the dancing and cheered for the
dancers and the birthday lad.
This week we study water, indigenous communities,
small-farmer holdings and food security, land use issues,
among others. The students have two small papers due from
this last trip and that looming mid-term. We continue to
watch for the rains. Maybe Ross Virginia will bring them?
All good wishes,
Jack and Kathleen