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Saturday, 28 December 2013

Volunteer Story - Elizabeth Corse

A few kilometers outside Windhoek, Brian (moves like a spring, permanently sunburned, London accent thick as the London fog) announced there were baboons in the road. I saw a few black-ish lumps that magically became, as we drew closer, actual baboons – and lots of them. Over the next few hours there were warthogs, eland, goats and sheep and cattle, jackals, steenbok and a mongoose, plus hornbills and various hawks, all surviving in a world of dry riverbeds, dry grasses and thorny bushes.

First impressions set the stage of an experience. Brian’s energy, Matti’s enthusiasm and the flourishing announcement, to our small van-load, “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you – the Waterberg,” drew up the curtain on a transformative two weeks. A few hours later, I was sitting down to dinner, gazing past a twin-peaked termite mound at that Waterberg, a magnificent and mysterious plateau of striated rock, as it reflected the brilliant fire colors of the setting sun. And it kept getting better from there.

My volunteer experience at CCF was mundane and extraordinary, tiring and invigorating, fascinating and even more fascinating. I raked goat yards and cheetah pens, fed and walked dogs, listened to a ruckus of bird calls every morning, and one day spent twelve-plus hours in a hide, counting zebra, tracking warthogs and trying to determine the ages and sexes of various oryx.

I have fed a lot of dogs in my life, but I’ve never before measured out Ultra Dog Superwoof Ostrich & Rice kibble. I have fed a few cats, but never before thrown two-kilo chunks of donkey meat over a three-meter fence for a cheetah. Three of these cats, purring together, sound as loud and rumbling as test-time at a Boeing factory – but so much lovelier.

When they play, they chase a scrap of cloth on a string – but at 60 or 70 kilometers an hour, tails swinging to the side as they take the corners at speed. They stalk, they wait, they pounce, and when they catch that rag they hold onto it – sometimes carrying it off under a tree, and trading it reluctantly when Juliette or Jenny offers a meat cube on a very long handled spoon.

On my second afternoon at CCF, after the amazement of traveling a country that has scores of deeply-carved rivers without a drop of water, I had the joy of watching the clouds mass, and hoping – seeing them darken, and hoping, hoping – feeling the wind cool and quicken, and crossing fingers – celebrating the first few drops with caught breath – seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling the rain take hold in earnest and exhaling joyfully, arms outstretched, face to the sky.

On my last morning at CCF, I watched the sky lighten above the Waterberg from a dusty, green plastic chair outside my rondavel, and then catch pink fire, radiating molten gold, copper, rose gold as scores of birds chirped, sang, called, cooed and whistled, and a kilometer or two away several small but powerful roosters crowed their heads off. A tiny duiker – unmarked, narrow ears instead of the steenboks’ oversized, stripey ones – skipped over and nibbled the ground under the acacia tree maybe ten meters from me.

Any one of those experiences would have been worth the 17-hour flight, and I haven’t even mentioned bouncing along in a well-used bush vehicle while Matti spots ostrich 300 meters away, or Chavoux eloquently catalogues causes of human-wildlife conflict, or Rob spots a bit of rhino scat he can show us – note the precise 45-degree angle at which the rhino’s teeth cut through twigs. Reaching into Amos’s head-cone to provide the ear scratches he appreciates so obviously, fending off curious goats, ferrying meat to the “boys”, tweezing ten hairs of various sizes and colors from the remnants of a scat sample. The two weeks contained about a year’s worth of new experiences.

Heading home, about a hundred miles out of Dulles Airport, the pilot announced that the temperature in Washington, DC, was six degrees below zero centigrade, or 21 degrees Fahrenheit. It seemed unreal. The Namibian savannah needs rain, and all my thoughts are of dark clouds lowering – and when can I go back.

Elizabeth Corse
CCF EarthWatch Volunteer

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