AVIVA volunteer Nicola Williams describes her 3-week stay at the Balule Conservation Project...
Life in Paradise - through the eyes of a volunteer.
Located in the Balule Nature Reserve, the aptly named Paradise Camp (well it's definitely my idea of Paradise) is a slightly rustic, but comfy, camp, it even has flushing toilets and showers, open air of course; no doors or walls but a stick screen to provide a degree of modesty from human eyes, the wildlife on the other hand are free to stop and stare, or you'll be joined by a millipede or two or some other creature as you go about your business! There is also electricity when the sun shines (which thankfully was often during my stay) thanks to the odd solar panel, what more do you need in paradise?
Paradise Camp is proud to claim that it is one of the only camps to not have a fence surrounding it, meaning that all creatures great and small, friendly or fierce are free to roam where ever they please (quite rightly too!). One evening, after returning from an excursion into the local town of Hoedspruit, we discovered that the creatures of the area certainly do exercise their right to roam.
As we got out of the Landover we could see a light from the game viewing tower. John (the research assistant who had been left in camp for the day) called to us to warn us that the camp appeared to have some new guests. We all made it up the tower and listened (being mere mortals and only having small torches our eyes could tell us nothing), sure enough you could hear the tell tale sound of branches being broken punctuated by the deep tummy rumbles of an elephant located just behind the left hand toilet (why oh why hadn't I gone to the loo in town???).
As we continued to listen we could hear another elephant, this time near one of the cabins, so going to bed AND going to the toilet were both out of the question, may as well make ourselves comfy on the tower. Another elephant could then be heard near the car park. We believed that they were the three adult males we had been photographing earlier that day near to the camp. They had obviously heard about Craig Spencer's fabulous cooking skills over the camp fire (he's won awards for his skills so I'm told), or maybe they felt sorry for John whom we abandoned in camp, or maybe it was those irresistible marula trees that had brought them into camp, either way they weren't in a hurry to move so we sat and enjoyed their company.
I stayed in one of the five wooden cabins built on stilts that are scattered in the bush and made sure that every evening I monitored my intake of water due to the proximity of my hut to the toilets and the all creatures great and small right to roam rule. The other two main 'buildings' (very open and wooden sums them up best) are the game viewing tower, the perfect location for a drink as the sun goes down and it provides a stunning 360 degree view over the bushveld out towards the Drakensberg Mountains, and which accommodates the kitchen beneath it. Then there is the office where the ever so slightly eccentric scientists/rangers/researc
I should really make a formal introduction to the men that make up Paradise Camp. Craig Spencer is the scientist (yes a slightly mad one) who analyses the data, writes the papers and does other important scientific things, He has a number of degrees behind him and a wealth of experience in the conservation of wildlife that is best explained by the man himself. Spencer is a lean, tanned, enchanting eyed, charismatic character who is passionate about the protection of wildlife. In my opinion the world needs more people like him to ensure a secure future for our wildlife. Next we have Craig Fox, the blue eyed English gent. He is a trained ranger and now puts his skills towards collecting data for Spencer. His drives are a daily education with continuous commentaries given on the various creatures we encountered. His passion for elephants is endless, although he may have been struggling for words one day whilst we quietly watched (and I recorded) a musting male elephant passing in front of the Landover, the silence was broken by Fox saying "now that's quite the shlong he has there!". He also shares the same ideals as Spencer concerning wildlife conservation. Last but not least there is the humble research assistant, John Slabbert. He is staying at Paradise for a year completing his degree. I am still trying to steal his job so won't lavish too much credit to him, although without him I wouldn't have a clue how to work out standard deviations.
There are a number of aspects to the research and work that goes on at Balule. There are basic things such as maintaining roads (put a saw in my hand and I am a happy woman removing trees from our path!); erosion work; monitoring boreholes to check ground water levels are not being affected by the various lodges; monitoring the need (or lack thereof) of water holes, to more in depth research such as identifying elephants in the area which they collaborate with other researchers to establish movement patterns, herd sizes etc; tree monitoring to establish how much damage to trees is done by elephants which will hopefully prove the idea that elephants are environmental moulders rather than environmental destroyers; and finally game counts which are carried out almost daily and will hopefully cut out the need for disruptive and expensive aerial game counts and give more accurate information on the number and composition of mammals in Balule, and then can be used as a future way for counting game in other areas. This data will be given to the head warden so he has hard facts behind future management policies. Spencer says it will take five years to collect all the data he needs.
One piece of data we had to collect was a visibility index (the science behind it is best discussed with Spencer but essentially was done to establish the average distance from the Landover into the bush where we would usually spot the animals on game counts). The process meant we had to have an implement that somewhat resembled an impala. John and I spent a rainy afternoon creating said contraption. Basically we attached the skull of a male impala (horns as well) to a stick measuring the average height of an impala. The next few days were spent stopping at random points along the five routes we use for game counting and running off into the bush wielding the impala skull on a stick, all in the name of research I assure you and no strange voo-doo going on despite appearances.
There were far too many highlights during my three week stay at Paradise. One of the major events that left me with sleepless nights occurred two weeks into my stay. Spencer returned from one of the lodges clutching a box which he told me was my project for my final week, in his words I was to "keep it alive". Inside the box was a cloth which I carefully unwrapped to find a tiny baby squirrel. Its eyes were barely open and it easily fit into my hand when I made a loose fist. After a degree of 'faffing' by the men, the sensible woman in camp (did I mention that I was the only woman there at the time??) dismantled a biro and used the tube with my thumb over the end to create suction to make a feeding device.
Unfortunately at the time the only thing we had suitable to feed him was a protein shake (used by John to help bulk his muscles!) and ended up being the inspiration behind the squirrels name, Arnie, after the ultimate muscle man Arnold Schwarzenegger (sadly not you John). Thankfully Arnie took to the strawberry flavoured protein shake and the new feeding device, although he expressed no opinion to his new name. For the next week I constantly had a squirrel attached to me, usually down my cleavage (well it was warm down there and meant my hands were free!).
Every two hours I fed him, we progressed onto normal baby food which was just as much of a hit as the protein shake. At night I had to hold him in my hand after I learnt the hard way that leaving him wrapped up in the cloth for two hours with no external body heat was not a good idea. When I woke to feed him he was cold and still, I feared he was going to die, but after half an hour of being cuddled he was warm again and wanting food. Occasionally I would wake up and realise I had moved my hand and feared moving in bed not knowing where Arnie was, every time he had managed to crawl up beside me and curl up in a ball of warmth, I was exhausted!
Thankfully someone donated a hot water bottle to us which made sleeping possible again and stopped the fear that I had rolled on top of him in the night. In just a week Arnie flourished, he became more hairy, especially his tail, and finally he went to the toilet (which had been a real worry for the first three days). He even started to eat mashed up bananas. He loved to be touched and would lift up his arm so you would scratch him in the right place. I was worried about what was going to happen to Arnie when I left, but the three men about camp assured me they would look after him (they have raised and released other abandoned creatures in the past) and after watching them with him (the two Craigs even took to licking his head like the mother would have done) I felt secure.
Although I will brush over the tears I shed as I got on the plane and had to leave little Arnie tucked up in Foxes shirt pocket. Hopefully they will be successful in rearing him to adulthood and when he is ready he will probably disappear back into the bush. Don't worry he is not destined to a life in a cage.
We had many close encounters with the wildlife during my stay; being approached by two male white rhino; watching a herd of 30-40 elephants come to the dam for a drink and play; seeing two male elephants fighting; occasionally being mock charged by various elephant who disagreed with having their photo taken; watching Spencer flea from the tracker seat at the front of the Landover to the back after coming across a rather upset and trumpeting loan elephant at night (we did get close); having three male lions walk right next to us in what suddenly felt like an overly open and exposed game viewing Landover; catching a male lion following a female lion one evening looking like they were intending to mate; sitting in the camp with solifuges (sun spiders) and scorpions running around our feet; watching a large black mamba snake rear up out of the road as we drove past; stopping by a family of jackals being amazed by the boldness of the juveniles who walked up to us to get a better look; seeing elegant giraffe stare at us through long eyelashes; getting close to herds of buffalo, impala and zebra; glimpsing hippos in the dams and river; catching rare day sightings of a pair of civets; the list could go on and on.
There are many things that I will miss about Balule and Paradise Camp, that will forever stick in my mind such as hearing the leopards and lions calling whilst we sat around the camp fire, the spectacular storms, the millions of stars on a clear night, the wildlife and of course my baby squirrel. But what will really last a lifetime is the education provided by Spencer, Fox and John, and the dedication they offer to keeping wild areas wild protecting the creatures that live there. Sadly man can destroy an area in a matter of days but to conserve, it takes lifetimes. Thankfully there are people like Craig Spencer, Craig Fox and John Slabberg doing such work. Thank you guys for an unforgettable three weeks