Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Land Before Time and After Rhinos

Yes, yes…I’ll get to Ireland, Switzerland and England posts later. In the meantime…

Baobab in Limpopo Province
I pile in the car with Sandie, Jerry and all of our gear including everything from public speaking workshop games to bat research toys. After our 2-hour flight from Cape Town, we tool away from Lanseria Airport near Johannesberg and begin our 4.5-hour drive to the Lapalala Wilderness School in an area known as the Waterberg.

This particular chunk of earth we barrel towards is estimated to be around 2.7 billion years old with the last rocks being laid down around 1.3 billion years ago. The main trades here are tobacco, cattle, game farming/trading and conservation. The three of us are here for the latter.

The Waterberg
Sandie and Jerry (AKA, the Dynamic Duo) are here on bat business. As we whiz past the post-winter, straw-colored landscape, Sandy explains that there are an estimated 60 known species of bat in South Africa and roughly 20 of those can be found in the Lapalala Reserve (36,000 hectares/139 square miles). She chirps through several Latin names and speaks of the particular qualities of roosts and bat scat. I smile, nod and realize that this woman is literally bat-shit crazy. Jerry is a retired engineer who worked for the railways in the UK. They both love dancing (a form known as ceroc), which goes quite well with Sandy’s stint in drama and Jerry’s spell as a figure skater. I can tell the 3 of us are going to be friends. And the best part? They live in my village (Greyton) for half the year.

the perks.
I learn that a select few know the number of white and black rhino in these parts, for the same reason you don’t give your credit card number to strangers or count your money in crowded public places. Poaching here is a very real concern for any reserve manager. With a single rhino horn fetching up to $60,000 per kilogram in Asian markets, reserve managers hold their cards close. As guardians of these epic giants, a fair amount of paranoia is a good thing.

But let’s take a step back. Why am I here? This goes back to my little village. In Greyton, there is a strange concentration of incredible people with legendary life experience from all over the world. One of those individuals is John Hanks. This fellow was the first Director for both the Institute of Natural Resources in KwaZulu-Natal and Peace Parks Foundation. He also has a long history dealing with the issue of rhino conservation through WWF. He is now the chairman of the Lapalala Wilderness School (LWS). Needless to say, he’s been a busy bee for the last (eh-hem) 40+ years. After several conversations, he asks me to come visit LWS in order to observe their programs and work with their small team of educator extraordinaires.

comic relief in public speaking workshop
The day after my arrival, I conduct a 4-hour workshop focused on public presentation skills, and dare I say…it was fun. It comforts me to meet outdoor educators from all over the world and hear about their perspectives. What I am discovering is that the landscape, language and culture varies, but the challenges (underpaid, overworked, khaki pants) and rewards (being in nature and getting others excited about it) are common threads with outdoor educators all over the world. We don’t do this for the money. We don’t do this because we love wearing uniforms. We do this because it (meaning hope for future generations) is just in our blood. We are not obligated; we are compelled.

Over the weekend, I tag along with the Dynamic Duo to search for signs of bat. If you know me, then you know if I am asked to go look for animal poo, I willingly oblige. We bumble and jiggle and bounce about on the trails of the reserve looking for little black, shiny bat droppings in a vast landscape of recovering wilderness. The next day, we make a day trip to the Botswana border through a colossal sea of potholes, which tossed us around like sneakers in a washing machine.
The LWS Gang
Passing through baobab country, you feel the whisper of a people and animal long passed that stored their secrets in the skin-like bark of these ancient trees. The older they get, the more the begin to hollow out from the inside, likely to make space for all the stories. I imagine the redwoods of California and the cypress trees of Iran hold the same data. The more secrets they receive, the larger, taller, or more twisted they grow in order to archive the undocumented.

Can you see the skink and the bat?
 It should be noted here that among the 3 of us, there was a dearth of silence.  Over the course of the week, we strike up conversations about (but not limited to) bat nipples, Sanskrit, recovery of dead bodies, diabetes, liabilities and lawsuits, labor unions, rhino roadblocks, handling black mambas vs. puff adders, intercostal breathing, reserve politics and poaching, the consequences of open windows, fresh muffins and motivated vervet monkeys, religious upbringings, sourcing of local meat, the dangers of white bread, baboon muggings, the history of coffee, US vs. UK colloquialisms, and zebra farts (which are apparently quite common).

On a run to Vaalwater with a willing educator-turned tour guide for the day, I have the great fortune to run into Clive Walker, Founder of the LWS and a respected and well-known conservationist in South Africa and beyond. He and his wife, Conita are having coffee outside the local supermarket. I feel awash in wisdom and life experience just simply being in the presence of these two individuals. They are soft spoken with white hair and casual clothing. As Clive graciously signs a copy of his latest book, The Rhino Keepers, Conita speaks softly of a hippo and rhino she raised. The next day, he spoke to a group of UNISA students and positively captured the room with his his presentation focused on the history and state of rhinos.

that kudu that you do.
As a teacher of public speaking, I am constantly learning from others who create magnificent recipes that capture the hearts of audiences and Clive was a master chef that day. I came here for a short consultation, but what I got was so much more. I made several new friends, learned how to say “how are you” in a language I didn’t even know existed, taught yoga to 4 willing participants, learned about the use of rhino dung as garden fertilizer, applied the brakes to allow a galloping giraffe, trotting warthog and bucking kudu to cross the road, hugged 2 conservation legends, and facilitated 8 hours worth of workshop on a subject that still terrifies me: public speaking.

Me with the Dynamic Duo, Sandie and Jerry
I sit here at the airport waiting for my flight to Cape Town. After a long absence, the sorely needed rain sheets down with accents of lightning and bellows of thunder. I imagine a white rhino and her calf somewhere nearby under the same sky, ears twitching with each drop, horned heads resting closely and calmly under an acacia. Are there poachers out today in this weather? Even if only for a moment, these two relics of a lost world find shelter in the storm from the bi-pedaled shadows that lurk and scheme under the same sky.