The sun was strong on our first drive – I definitely was glad I had remembered to put sun cream on. I’ve realised I have the best sun cream ever – it has glitter in it. When I’m in the sunlight I am level with Edward Cullen in sparkliness. Score.
So on our drive, we went round checking motion sensor cameras, which Wildlife Act has installed all over Somkhanda and some of its neighbouring reserves. These cameras sense movement, so take a picture whenever an animal passes (it also takes a picture whenever grass moves, as they are quite sensitive, so we end up with a lot of blank photos which is a bit annoying!!) The purpose of them is to collect data on how many leopards are in the area, as this is a reserve which concentrates on leopard conservation. When we think we know how many there are, we can take the data to the hunting authorities to try to get them to issue less leopard hunting permits. The leopards have not shown their gratitude for our efforts to help them, as they have not yet appeared, but we’ve seen evidence of them on the cameras and are still hoping to see one before we leave. The hunting issue also sucks because it makes the animals, especially a lot of antelope species, pretty skittish, which means we see less when we’re out.
We go round checking these cameras every day. There are 66 cameras at 33 sites spread out far and wide, and we have to check every camera once a week to get the photos from them and to replace their batteries. That first drive was the first time I’ve used a hand drill. It was pretty exciting; I felt very manly.
Despite the fact that all I’d really done was sat on the back of a jeep all day, I was pretty wiped when I got back. The roads really are pretty bumpy and it’s a bit of an effort to hold on – checking cameras is more tiring than it first appears!! We went through the photos we collected from the cameras that day; no leopards, but some other interesting animals including genets (which are these cute little cat things with stripy tails), porcupines and giraffes (although you can only see their legs!!) Some of the photos are pretty amusing, as some of the animals are clearly alarmed by the flash of the camera and jump several feet into the air!! I did not know giraffes could jump. Fun fact.
For dinner, we had a braii (a South African BBQ) with impala (type of antelope) sausages and butternut squash. The light was fading as our food cooked over the smouldering hot fire (made with firewood which we had collected ourselves). Just as the food was ready, Brett got a call from his boss saying that there was a fire in Somkhanda and it was spreading towards some of the camera sites. The cameras are expensive, and we didn’t want to risk losing them, so the food was forgotten. We bundled into the truck, with woollen blankets to protect from the raw night wind.
As we reached the main reserve, we first glimpsed the fire. Angry orange lines cut into the a cold black, as the flames devoured their furious way along the hill. The sky glowed scarlet, as flickering red smoke billowed into the night. It almost looked like the sky was burning from the bottom up, like the edge of newspaper held to a flame. It was a sight such as I’ve never seen before: frightening, but beautiful in a wild way. It really took your breath away.
Luckily, we managed to snatch a pair of cameras from the fire’s clutches, but had to leave another pair, as it would have been too dangerous to drive that close.
We’d taken a red spotlight with us, so on the way back we were able to do some night time game watching. Herds of impala watched us from the trees in the gloom, although for once did not run, as they could not see the light of the spotlight. It was quite eery as their eyes glinted crimson in the darkness. We didn’t expect what stepped onto the out of the trees next.
A white rhino, looming huge and silent in the road in front of us took a step in our direction. The engine was hurriedly turned off and we began to roll quietly down the hill away from the rhino. Rhinos can be unpredictably aggressive and we prayed it would not charge us. Tension hung in the air, as it took one last dismissive look at us and disappeared, as quickly as it had come, into the darkness. We waited a few uncertain moments to check for sure that it was gone, then drove on.
Little did we know how much luckier we were about to get. A few minutes later, we saw another rhino. It was not alone. Two females and two babies were walking down the road in the opposite direction to us. We stopped and stared in astonishment at the sight we had stumbled upon. I felt privileged to witness the little family as it hurried away from us down the road. We had been incredibly lucky: Brett has seen 2 rhinos in Somkhanda the 2 months he has been here and we had just seen 5 in one night!!
It really was the perfect end to the evening.