Zim Log 6/7/13: The Caravan

Some rituals I trust can be forgiven.

I think of the line from the movie Pi (not to be confused with “Life of Pi”), where the lead character says, and I paraphrase, “I once forced myself to stare into the sun. As my pupils shrunk, everything came into focus”.

I’m sitting now where I always sit at this time, on the Admin veranda, looking into the gleam of Apollo’s chariot as it hastens toward waking lands. I can picture a smirk on Apollo’s face. It says, “My work here is done.”

Farewell friend, I hear myself think. Farewell.


The Caravan

We moved the kraal two days ago. This is a cattle enclosure. It’s an Afrikaans word and probably has the same root as corral. There are lots of Afrikaans terms in use here. One is vlei, pronounced flay, and veldt, pronounced felt. A vlei is a seasonal shallow lake, yet it seems to be used here to refer to flat land near a river. A veldt is open expanse, what we would call a plain.

Moving the kraal is a Quixote-esque expedition – a Gypsy caravan. You see, we aren’t just moving the kraal, which is one hundred fifty meters of canvas sheeting plus metal posts and rope. No. That’s the easy part. There is also the team of herders who camp each night with the kraal. They have a mini village, complete with tents and beds and cooking gear and flashlights (called “torches”), and, um, lest I forget, fire crackers. Yes, fire crackers. These are to scare the lions off, in case they jump the sheeting and kill a goat or cattle, which, for whatever reason, seems to happen when I arrive. A sheep was killed last weekend, and the last time I was here, a cattle was gotten the day before my plane landed. It fed us for several days, but was tough – as happens when an animal is killed in a state of panic. It’s fear releases chemicals that harden the meat.

Allan was wondering whether my first night at the Center, after traveling thirty six hours, should be spent with him and his riffle keeping watch at the kraal, but then he thought the better of it. “It could be dangerous”, he said. Really? I thought later. Defending twelve hundred tons of living meat from hungry lions is dangerous? Come now. But, in fact, I wish he had invited me. What better way to rid jet lag?

There’s a new innovation from an organization called Lion Alert that fashions kraals with solar powered blinking lights. (I think I mentioned this in a previous post). Apparently the blinking perturbs the lions. Hey, it perturbs humans as well. I guess it’s not a coincidence that blinking lights are a sign of warning. There must be something deeply psychological about that. Anyway, the goat corral did not have them. But, that could change. The real concern is that even the smell of lions can cause the cattle to stampede, thus flattening the canvas sheeting like tar paper. Of course, that’s both what the lions want, and similarly, what evolution has concocted to protect the herding grazers. Although domestic, cattle can resort to wild behavior in the presence of predation – just like people.

Moving the kraal is part of “planned grazing” in a “predator friendly” environment. The planned grazing calls for keeping the cattle in a moving herd. As this herd is in a wild savanna with lions and other predators, the cattle must be protected at night, so they need to be in a guarded corral. And as the cattle are always moving to new land (never overgrazing), the kraal, and it’s encampment has to move with them.

This operation, however, contrary to convention, must also be kind-to-predators, i.e. “predator friendly”. There is no shooting of lions or discouraging their well-being. Unfortunately, lions are routinely killed by villagers to protect their cattle and homesteads (just like American’s killed wolves). In some cases that I’ve read about, their watering spots are laced with cyanide, poisoning not just the lions, but other creatures too. It’s a horrible story, but they’re trying to change that here. Being “predator friendly” is just one of many innovations. They are also trying to figure out how to be elephant friendly, and hyena friendly. As Rodney King would say, “Can’t we all just get along?”

So, back to the caravan: Leading the charge is the Africa grade Land Rover truck. These are the real deal. $70 new I understand. Not bad for a 2-seater. Would Hummers suffice? Unlikely. I’m not sure the wheel base in long enough. There are some serious gullies we have to cross. My understanding is that the Land Rover was invented to chauffeur the Queen of England when she visited her African colonies. It wouldn’t do to have her fouling her shoes in buffalo dung or getting lace snagged on thorns. So, no expense was spared building the finest vehicles on the planet, that, I can assure you, handle undulating terrain with the firmness of a British upper lip.

In tow behind the Land Rover truck is the wagon. This contains the kraal sheeting, polls, ropes, tents, beds, gear and sundry items that make the camp. In tow behind the wagon, is the chicken coop. Yes, the chicken coop. This contains the chickens, plus the baby goats that are too small to be herded. They are no bigger than the chickens themselves. Chickens, of course, are for eating. I imagine they are slaughtered and processed right there in the field. The occasional goat no doubt also meets a similar demise. Last time I saw a slaughtered and skinned goat hanging from a tree next to the kraal. Was it drying to make biltong (meat strips, like jerky)? “What is this”, I asked. “Goat”, was the reply.

Topping off this caravan are the people – maybe ten in total, but on this trip we had four with us already. So, let’s say fourteen people. Five, perhaps, were in the wagon. Six, or so, were in the back of the Land Rover truck, and three were in the front seat. Oh, did I forget the dogs? Of course, there are dogs. Maybe two or three. These are the original lion warning system. They’re small, cute, and expert at sounding the alert. I understand, that on one rare occasion, a couple of these darling canines were taken tragically by a leopard. It was a stormy night, and the theory is that they didn’t catch the scent. “That story ended in grief”, said the ranch manger, “but dogs are replaceable”. Apparently so. They’re common. When traveling and camping in the bush, they’re your best companion. Don’t leave home without one.

So, add two or three dogs to the mixture of people, chicken, goats, Land Rover, wagon, all the camp supplies, and a chicken coop. Now add the roughest terrain on earth, plus river crossings. Get the picture? Can you say “clang”? This happens once a week, every week. It’s part of life on a ranch with planned “predator friendly” grazing, where cattle, people, and lions, are living together, whiling building soil and restoring ecosystems. No one said it was glamorous, but it works.

Don Quixote would be proud. As am I.

– Seth


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