top of page

LIVING ON THE RESERVE • Tabytha To Part 2

This was a major part of why I chose to sign up with this particular program. It really IS better for the animals – (well, being free in the wild is better, but under certain circumstances, not for these ones.) The Arrivals terminal was full, lots of flights still happening back then. Obviously I was not checking the news often during travel, but had heard of this Coronavirus. There was a warning I saw in a paper that about 132 people had died from an infection in China. It still hadn’t spread globally yet it seemed…. Little did I know that my timing was perfect for going to the game reserve when I did, as all volunteer conservation programs would soon be shut down after I left.

I arrived in Johannesburg after a very teary-eyed departure in Cape Town saying goodbye. It was such a beautiful day out, and I had only just met the rest of the Heyburgh family that very day; we had an outdoor luncheon and it was lovely, but then it got emotional and parting is such sweet sorrow sometimes… most times. I had a late night flight and stayed at a nearby hotel for 6 short hours, just to return back to the airport early morning. But, when I arrived again, I found two friends from Toronto there also. Small world…. and a sign with my name on it was held up at the info counter. I waved adios to those lads and wished them well on their glorious journeys ahead, then threw my bags in a strangers car and was off for a long hot drive away to my new, short term home.

I signed the safety of my life away, willing to risk it to see tigers and other incredible creatures, but also to enrich their lives. I couldn’t believe that some of the ostrich’s were friendly enough and that I could even pet such a big bird! The feathers are soft, but the head and neck feel like one of those crinkly childhood craft papers. If they don’t want your love they run away. We rightfully called them chickens, however extremely large chickens.

I had 10 mins to settle in to my “room” which, I wasn’t expecting the Ritz Hotel as I only paid for ‘room and board’ to volunteer and help out. Beggars cannot be choosers and this old room that had been slept in by many before me, would have to suffice. Though it was clean it seemed dirty, but after day two of work I already did not care, except for when I had a giant moth buzzing around and it was making me dizzy going around the light whilst I was trying to read. I was a baby about it so I had to come out and get a brave assistant to kindly remove it for me…. dusty wings, no thanks. It was morning, but late, not quite noon yet, I had missed breakfast, so I was given my orientation for daily tasks and duties. I arrived on Monday and luckily missed “Shit Trailer” work in which, I will get to; let’s just say that would have been awful as my first job upon arrival. Our approximate wake up at 6/6:30am everyday or earlier if you were signed up for the elephant walks. We as workers were allowed two each per week. Privilege you see. Work was to start as soon as everyone gathered in the common meeting area, but as it’s free labour, some people do not abide by the prompt schedule and show up late and still crusty-eyed in pjs. When all had joined then we were to grab our tools or what not and go off to our assignments. The paid crew was fortunate they had a lot of people signed up (especially during the slower season as it is too hot so less helping hands.) It seemed a few groups of friends came together so there were eleven of us volunteers from all over the world, a mixed bag crew of us: boys and girls, different age groups and I admit I was the eldest, even out of most the staff. Thus with our rather large number we were divided in to two teams.

So let’s say typical day is:

7am Monday – everyone does Shit Trailer. Come back, if time to shower you can but no point if you’re just going to get dirty again… breakfast every day at 9am. The good thing about our mealtime was we had to walk 15 mins away uphill to the lodge where food was served. We were the lowly staff in a camp, but guests stay at the lovely lodge with a pool and restaurant. We got a cafeteria room with basic food to serve the masses, like instant coffee (my god when I realized I could buy real coffee at the bar, it was a game changer!), maybe a banana, happy when there were eggs, but mostly cereal, white bread, and perhaps hash browns. Sometimes bacon but I don’t eat pigs. If there were apples I’d stash it for the horses, some of them loved those treats and it was fun to have them nibble one out of your hand. We were hungry by 9am, morning work builds an appetite. At 10am, after the important meal of the day, strength was built back up, we could do more assignments. Say Team 1 – clean the horse stables. Team 2 – elephant houses. This really was quite literally, shitty work. Animals have to go overnight, so when they are gone out in the morning for their long walks, we sneak in and shimmy up their joints, clean all their feces up. Elephants can do a lot of damage in one night lemme tell ya! I was a prude at first, putting a bandana over my mouth and nostrils, holding my breath scooping too close. The manure piles would then go on to wagon and hence, on to the mighty “Shit Trailer.” This doody duty could take about 45 mins, depending how many shovels and hands on board. Only one hose. You’ll be happy to know the elllys are free to live on the grounds of the park, but again sadly, due to fucking poachers, we have to keep them in security lock up over night. Their houses were decent and big enough though so don’t worry.

On the park grounds there are about five horses I can name, who were well loved and taken care of by their handlers. And I give warning for you not to read this part if you are sensitive. The other side of the stables were horses we could not get attached to. As this place is a sanctuary it is where sick, old or hurt beyond repair horses are sent for their last few days in peace. The vet lets them go humanely and they are hopefully having the most comfortable last days, before they are released from their anguish and turned in to cat food. Circle of life…. I learned the hard way.

This was before I knew about the ones in back stables, the circle of life. I felt like it was a scene from the Godfather, seeing a bloody, decapitated head. I didn’t throw that one it was too heavy for me to throw that far and I couldn’t look the horses face in the eyes, but it really was interesting watching the lions go after their share. The lionesses would grab meat and then run off with their portion, probably because the male would likely try and steal theirs too. I’m absolutely in love with the leopard, I had never seen one before. She was sleek and sultry, hiding in her favourite tree. She only came out to feed after we left, but over my time there she became less shy and would eventually come right up to us, through a fence mind you, we couldn’t just walk on to her turf of course. That’s her territory alone to rule. A majestic, fierce cat I have a lot of respect for. The tigers to me were unreal, especially during feeding, they jumped up to catch their dinner!

I’ve seen a caged tiger in a Thai zoo pacing back and forth as it had gone mad; it was the saddest moment I’ve ever witnessed a creature, in pure torment. These ferocious beauties had each other, and loads of space to run and trees to climb if they so wish. The enclosures are necessary, these predatory big cats sadly cannot be free in the wild, as they will be hunted. Poachers are the worst. Don’t get me started. I think I’m the only person in quarantine right now who actually refuses to watch the horrid “Tiger King” on Netflix that everyone and their cousin has a meme for already. I can’t stand greedy hicks abusing these magnificent beasts. Breeding and declawing are NOT allowed on this park. Should be the way they all are! However people want profit and stuff poor tigers and lions in to small paddocks – prisons. They inhumanely de claw them, use them for entertainment, most are drugged, under exercised, depressed, traumatized, then sold off illegally as pets, to roadside fake “zoos”, or for body parts that some ignorant people still believe cures them in some form or another. It’s brutal. In America alone they have more big cats in captivity under horrible conditions, than there are existing worldwide in the wild. In Africa, if hunters don’t get to the lions first, there is a thing called canned hunting, where there are bred in captivity, kept in small cages, just to grow up big enough to be killed for trophy sport. They are utterly helpless, how can a “man” feel proud at all, paying to shoot a trapped animal?

We got an allowance for a wifi feature at the lodge, but you had to use it wisely cause the expiry session wasn’t as charitable, and then you’d have to pay. I’d post pics of the beloved animals mostly. Afterwards, say Team 1 would go clean up the branches that were blocking a path, and Team 2 would go spray and hack the bad weeds growing. The park is huge, so there is a lot of weeding to do. Then there would be animal enrichment programs we all do together and get a lot of joy out of. Like watching the lions (a Pride a week, there were were three different ones, mostly keeping families together so they don’t kill or mate with each other) and they would do racing tracks. For example chasing after a lure that we tied up to the bakkie. Watching them run so close is a captivating sensation. You feel so lucky to watch these predators in their full potential. One of them, the brother during this particular run, was scared of the shiny lure so he never actually wanted to touch it and would run fast after it upon release (out of the trailer, we take them to a meadow to run farthest) but then he would psyche himself out getting too close and would trip over his own feet. It was so sweet and hilarious to see this big guy that could tear your face off, afraid of a shiny ball with tiny tassels on it. His sisters were amazing though, incredibly fast! I’m just glad they get to run often enough, but I was amazed how tired they were after. Lions got it good, they sleep up to 20 hours a day if they wanted to. As it was the hottest month then they mostly sat in the shade and groomed themselves, napped for ages, or played with each other or their toys we gave them. They love to play with boxes filled with hard manure by the way, I guess it would be natural for them in the wild right.

And then after those assignments came my favourite part of every day. Prepping and collecting food buckets for the plains animals, meaning the free roaming ones on the plains like zebras and wildebeests and so forth. First we’d get the get the raw chicken necks and throw them over to the servals who were absolute darlings, but I’d hate to piss them off ever, those sharp teeth! They are like smaller bob cats, or big domesticated cats with specific markings. We then would hop back onto the back of the big bakkie I called “Mojumbo” and we’d drive around to the lodges kitchen entrance, where the chefs would have crates of leftover veggies for us. Driving off over the plains under dried, lime green African trees, rusted dirt terrain and under crystal blue skies is grandiose. Seeing all the wildlife run around opens your heart and fills it with light and love. Everytime I was in awe. I volunteered to do it before each sun set. Mojumbo would stop in the middle of some tall grass and herbs and pull up to a large enclosure for two sweet looking yet ever so vicious mongoose. Unfortunately they get hunted too often for their fur, do you know how many it would take to make a fucking coat? Anyways they get chicken necks and feet, all the parts with bones in them as their razor teeth can chew through them with ease, I could hear them crunching bones. Fun fact, mongooses are snake killers, can take down a cobra no problem. Fascinating. I love snakes but I’d prefer nature to survive over stupid man killing them for no reason. They scurry quickly to us with excitement and it was awesome to see their little, although very scary claws, come up and grab their meal.

The deer such as impala and the great kudu seem to just eat off the land and don’t care about our grains, but they would always stop along their tracks to stare at us then run off. I saw a skittish jackal once, but he seemed to like hunting in solitaire. After sharing food on the plains we then drive to a tall feeding station that was very hard to lift the heavy sacks of food and dump in to the troughs. This particular sound brought all the giraffes and some sneaky ostrich’s attention! It was the coolest thing to watch them come out from nowhere suddenly and dunk their long, gorgeous, obtrusive necks into the troughs and then chew precariously form side to side with their silly mouths. It was brilliant watching them eat, they’d look at you with their special, patterned faces and dopey eyes with long eyelashes, and everything just seemed to melt away. Dinner time feeding was calming for me at least. Unlike the horse meat for the predators. The ostrich’s weren’t as tall but very sneaky and would peck vigorously at the feed, it was very funny and they were also a nuisance. Let the giraffes eat in peace damnit. After watching the somber faces satisfied with their ration, their beautiful heads would go back up in to trees and disappear. And then, my favourite part was to end the evening by going to a hidden trough that had a metal door to prevent the other greedy animals away from the little wart hogs dinners. That’s where the left over veggies went and you would hear their little heels prancing on the dirt path towards us and their kiddies squealing in delight. They’d crawl in to the hut on their knees, oh man they are precious. They made me extremely happy, and if you don’t believe me, baby hogs are the cutest and I could never think of them as vile beasts. They are beloved darlings too.

After that it was time for human dinner at 7:30pm and it was never good food, but at least the view from the lodge to see the sunset over the plains from afar was magic. I did run a tab at the bar and every night I’d have an African beer and scotch, or two glasses of local wine. At lunch time my bartenders knew to have an Amarula coffee ready for me at 1pm, where I’d sit with my iPad outside and really relax. Amarula cream liqueur comes from an African fruit called Marula. It trickles down the tree and animals, especially monkeys and even elephants, lick the sap and then hours later become intoxicated as the fruit ferments in their stomach. They have been known to be hung over on occasion. I enjoyed mine as a shot neat (not on ice as people do) and pour it in to my espresso. Brilliant combination, I got a few other volunteers in to this ritual also. The kids, (I shouldn’t be harsh but compared to me as I could have been three of theirs’ actual mother,) would stay up and party. I utilized this early schedule for trying to go to bed before 1am for once. There was a pool table I dabbled in a match or two, a games night on one occasion. Mostly I had a shower and went to bed with my book. Although one night we had a party by a fire off grounds (I suppose the lodge rents that space out for weddings in the park) and we all danced the night away and I did have fun, but they wanted pop music the whole time and I ended up being babysitter/water patrol to the sick teenager whom I called out would not be able to handle her liquor. In fact that evening I shared a bottle of tequila with a Mexican and he ended up vomiting all throughout the next day – and they went on safari four hours away, rough go champ.

Other tasks were random, as were needed. Every morning was elephant house, horse stables cleaning and, I don’t want to say the species out right but, we also had to clean the ‘chubby unicorns’ pens out as well. How magnificent these docile creatures are, however I would not like to get in their way you’d be trampled in 30 seconds. They seem so gentile and I will do anything to protect the last of them remaining. Sadly there are only two Northern white rhinos left in the entire world! Fucking ivory trade! And the black rhinoceros has low numbers, also very endangered now. We hide them well and give them good space of settlement, and two of them are a couple in love and it was the sweetest sight ever watching them sleep head to head beside each other, resting horns together in harmony. I wonder what they dream of, staying alive, being free one day again. We do not photograph them for their own good, but how badly did I wish I could as one may never see them again in less than a few years, shameful. So many are brutally murdered in the wild each day! It’s savage the way they are mutilated and left to die. Just for a stinking horn because someone has an idea it makes them healthy or wealthy, utter bullshit! Breaks my goddamned heart and makes me feel as though animals are more humane than us selfish humans. A unicorn was slashed (I know it sounds terrible and harsh doesn’t it, but it’s sadly true) two years ago on the reserve. A staff member at 6am found her bleeding out to death, awful. But never again here they promised from that day on. So now they have guard dogs, lots of security and even some that go out late at night to search for poachers to prevent them from entering the protected land, and an electric fence. Weird always seeing guns, but I adapted to it quickly, especially later in Rwanda and Israel where I was completely desensitized by then. My room was right by the fence so it drove me mad beeping every 6 seconds. I put pillows over my ears, but had no earplugs and I was afraid even if I did, I’d miss my 6am alarm clock. After three nights of restless bad sleep (think I may have got three hours max on one evening) I moved in to my friends shared room where only monkeys come and steal your snacks. Literally things were taken, I busted a sly one with no fear hopping on the beds and upon the shelves where someone hid apples and bananas. Hilarious! Knocked clothes all over the floor, wasn’t very conspicuous about it. From then on we shut the windows. Cheeky buggers but I’m glad how resourceful they are. So fast too, they are on top of the game.

Once a week is the infamous “shit trailer” on Mondays. Imagine a huge trailer just covered in shit. That’s where we dump the wagon barrels from the pens and drive off to the meadows dumping pile, just a heap of manure. Eventually it turns into soil and some greens were starting to sprout from the ghastly mountain. Elephants I thought were bad, massive poops, but nothing is worse than the astringent unicorn piss. Their poop is foul but only hay diet, they have to eat tones of it a day. Horses surprisingly are the least ronchy of them all and they eat hay as well. But this unicorn urine is strong, like 100 angry cats peed in a puddle. We have to separate the solids from liquids with rakes, scoop it on to the wagon, walk it to the trailer then repeat. Washing the piss away was last so the entire time you are smelling this nasty odour. And mix it with the heat, ooooh! But you know, I was happy to do it so they could come back safe and sound to a clean bedroom to sleep in, protected for another day.

Cleaning duties were every morning but once we had to build a temporary cage by the leopards quarters, as she was getting a new friend. They had been introduced previously, but not on her turf. He was a young jaguar that was abandoned somewhere, can’t remember his story. We were going to keep him a few hours beside her establishment so that she could get used to him there, and then if she was willing to inquire of him he’d be put inside her territory but to remain in the said cage until she sniffed him out, politely. If all were unanimous with each other, then we’d open up and release him to his new home. I missed that day as it was park staff and animal carers only who got to assist with the move. But building that cage was hard, it was heavy and we had to break wires then put them back together again. I did get shocked once but it was on low. I felt strange for a while after, disorientated and in shock, literally. I’d like to think the electrical defences were anti humans coming in….. but I’m not sure if it’s so the cats don’t escape.

Another rare task was holding down the donkeys while the staff had to rub anti-tick cream into their scalps. These guys are tough. It took six of us to hold one. They ended up looking like they were starting a punk rock band, I’d call them “Rule of the Mule” bad ass *see what I did there!? They had a Mohawk afterwards as the cream was purple, but you could see all the antagonizing flea bites and I hope we cured them. A donkeys “hee haws” is the loudest noise of all the animals, it lingers and is rather wretched sounding. Other than the nocturnal lions at night who roar to prove they are king of the jungle (reserve) to the other Prides. The sound of roars sent chills up my spine but I thoroughly got excited every time at 1am or so when they vocally showed off their alpha claim.

We had the very sexy, silver fox vet come with a rifle one of the days. All teams were on deck. This made my gut go crazy with anxiety. However he wasn’t there to kill any being, he had tranquilizers to target the over populated wildebeest males in that area, knocking up too many females and they had to relocate the bigger boys so that the shared land could be balanced out. He got the bulls precisely where he aimed. The beest would run off, then we’d coax them back our way by shaking food buckets. Then they’d start chewing and slowly start staggering until they fell in to a deep spell. These creatures are massive, also locals refer to them as gods left overs, like all the parts of animals put on one hideous creature. They’re not ugly to me. We’d lift them by the horns on to tarp, then eight of us would lift them on the the truck. Man they are heavy! Standing there holding dead weight in the blazing sun, one volunteer even fainted! We finally got four bulls in the truck that day. I heard they woke up on the other side and went straight to eating leaves as if nothing happened. I felt bad like we stuffed them and bruised them, but hopefully not. An alternate day other wildebeest were released from a truck on to the plains where we got to see if the ladies would take to them in their social network. Much to our amusement they allowed these new members in. I dunno if they were impotent or what, but for some reasons these wildebeest would not mate as much apparently. Success story in controlled conservation I suppose..

I managed to stub my big toe the previous night watering the horses (filling their buckets up) in the dark, barefoot, and cracked it on a ledge. It was excruciatingly painful and having it swell while stuffed in to a tight saddle foot was not ideal, but I thought I had just badly banged it. Little did I know I broke the damned thing. So of course after riding I wanted to do it all and went to another location and forced some other volleys who also did not go hot air ballooning to go zip lining with me – for their first time. I think I’ve done it in 8 countries or so now. I just love flying over stunning scenery of places you really can’t discover the mass and beauty of until you are over it, or rather, flying through it. It was astonishing how evil the sun was that afternoon, but we managed to do seven lines and the others at first were overly cautious, but then ended up with the biggest grins on their faces like I said they would, and they thanked me for making them do it. What a fun job those lads have, they get to zip across the land all day, make scared people happy. They taught us some Zulu and Sotho, but embarrassingly I forgot it all, such lovely greetings I do recall however. Shame. Went back to camp for a still night only to find that my adventure filled day was over, and that work in the morning with a fat, busted, black toe was not going to be any fun whatsoever.

So blessed I signed up twice for the 5am elephant walks. There are three on the grounds, one mama, her daughter and an adopted sister who is lucky that mama let attach to her and raise as part of the family. A happy trio of girls with no bulls to bully them. Maybe the eldest will want to have her own baby soon but they do not breed here, against the rules, and I think if she doesn’t see any males perhaps she won’t know to mate…. I can’t give any answers on that. Feel sad they can’t have a proper herd free in the wild. Why do people have to ruin everything for everyone? The handlers do however take precious care of them, are very loving, informative and adore our gentle giants. They knew so much about them. They walk by them every day for hours so that they do not wander off the conservation and re-direct these ladies back to their safe sleeping pens. If an elephant never forgets, would she remember how to get back on her own? Anyways it’s nice they are out in open all day, protected at night. They basically feed for eight hours plus straight. Constantly stopping at a tree to pull branches down with their mighty trunks. I tried to pull some leaves off and hand feed it to the mother, and as if showing off she pulled her own bunch off on one full swipe whilst I was still tugging with all the strength I could muster, but to no prevail. Magnificent beings, when you look into the eye of this soulful creature of Mother Nature, you feel you are being processed. It’s special. My heart misses them dearly.

I won’t go on about tasks but I will share new found esteem for the the misunderstood hyena. All this time I pictured them as evil. Perhaps “The Lion King” film depicted them as devilish, I also watch a lot of Attenborough documentary’s and it appears as they are savage scavengers in packs, or always attacking. But we never see the full story. Yes they are merciless hunters, but can also be tame when not on the kill. There was one brown hyena, a different kind of breed, whom I now hold in high regard, mostly due to her tenderness. That’s right, some hyenas are indeed so sweet! I wish she had friends in her enclosure, but then I guess it’s good they aren’t in harm and taken to the rescue reserve. She does have it pretty good there. Oh her darling face, it was like she was smiling. And extremely affectionate, she’d come up to the fence and press her face up for you to pet her. She’d close her eyes indulging in this touch. Something we can relate to these days being in quarantine, not being able to touch or have a physical connection with anyone. I want animals to be free but if they must be in captivity, let them be free in a sanctuary at least so they are not in dire isolation and cramped. I’ll come back and hope she gets re-released one day, but after rehabilitation, I don’t think a pack will accept her pleasant character.

They deserve to truly live, and it’s only up to US who can undo the damage from this day forth. Appreciate all living beings, trust me if you saw a benevolent wart hog, a regal tiger, a wise elephant up close, unchained or hurt, you’d respect something bigger than yourself and you’ll want to dedicate your energy into letting them be as they deserve to be…. free, alive. I love and miss them all, even the mischievous monkeys and howling donkeys. I look forward to future progress and can’t wait to return back to this project with more knowledge and time. Thanks for letting me share this valuable journey with you.

Tears shed here. Heart bursting here. Please protect.

PS. Perhaps I shouldn’t have even mentioned the unicorns as per their safety, but there were other animals there that I will not mention and whom I did get to walk amongst and yes, it was historic even, but saddening that it was under these circumstances. I won’t divulge any more info. But know that if you don’t think there are many of a creature left, it is probably true and because of us.

*next article is reliving what it was like to travel in Rwanda Tabytha’s Africa journeys Part 1 – Cape Town 2020 I caught up on one of my favourite things to do, hitting up some wineries!

LIVING ON THE RESERVE Tabytha To Part Two – Conservation week with Lions: Somewhere in Africa, 2020

Tabytha on her Facebook

WhatsApp's

0 views0 comments

Comentarios


bottom of page