Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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Always learning

I have always wanted to be an incredibly knowledgeable brainbox about everything to do with southern African wildlife and nature. After living here for a number of years and working in the conservation industry, I know now my stuff…sort of. I can definitely tell you about all the big stuff and I can identify the most common trees and birds. But I’m still clueless about the finer points. There’s so much to learn from poos to lizard species, from astronomy to rocks, etc, etc, ad infinitum, ad astra. When someone asks me ‘what animal is making that sound?’, and I have to answer ‘bird’, I cringe inside because I really wish I knew all my bird calls. And here’s a guilty secret of mine – sometimes when I’m leading a group walking through the bush and I spot an interesting looking track on the ground that I don’t know, I  smudge it out with my foot as I walk past so that no one in the group will ask me what it is. The shame!

Since we left Lajuma, Sam and I been on a quest of self-improvement and career development through achieving qualifications, writing publications, and developing skills. I got my PhD – boom – and wrote an academic paper which is currently in the purgatory between writing and publication. Now it’s time to learn those pesky bird calls and tracks. In October last year, I started a correspondence course about southern African biodiversity with Africa Nature Training. I have to read stuff and pass tests and complete projects on various nature topics. Then once I’ve passed the correspondence course, there is a two week practical in a big 5 area to learn more stuff and learn how to guide. Then I have to pass more tests and hopefully at the end I get my Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) level 1 certification and become a qualified field guide. If one of my ‘guests’ is eaten by a lion during my final FGASA practical test, I probably won’t pass. I will try to avoid this eventuality by pointing a stick at the lion and saying no.

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The first time I heard about doing a FGASA qualification was in 2007 and since then I have wanted to achieve do it. Getting a FGASA qualification has sat on my to do list waiting for the right time for almost 10 years! I’m glad that I’m making the time now. I’m currently about half way through the correspondence course bit. For some of my projects I have had to draw plant parts. This served an incredibly important purpose of making learning about grasses slightly less dull.

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Acacia caffra leaves

Finally, here’s another drawing which doesn’t count towards my course but illustrates why I love Africa. It’s all about the animals. I think doing this course is sort of about love. There is a quote by someone called Baba Dioum (whose name reminds me of Shanty Baba who leads the ghost tours in St Ives) saying “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” This quote feels like it echoes our motto – always loving, always learning, always looking for animals. Knowing more about what we love can only make us better conservationists and the world needs better conservationists right now.

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Talking about the weather

The British love to talk about the weather. However living in the lowveld in South Africa, there is not normally much to discuss weatherwise. It is sunny and hot most of the time. When we lived in the Soutpansberg Mountains, we would crack out our winter coats and woolly hats come June and shiver in our bed, but here a cardigan generally suffices. Well for me at least, Sam isn’t really a cardy wearing man thank goodness.

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Enjoying the sun in Kruger, August 2016

Last week there was a lot of weather talk. Cyclone Dineo was heading for the Mozambique coast and Limpopo Province was next in its path. Everyone was on high alert and started battening down the hatches. The government warned everyone to stock up on canned foods and the spokesman for Mopani District Municipality warned residents “not to attempt to cross rivers or bridges” and risk being swept away. Noggs’ school closed down for the day last Friday in anticipation of flooded roads and dangerous weather conditions. Yes, here in South Africa schools have cyclone days, not snow days. But Dineo mostly missed us, it shifted course and we got a bit of a rain shower in the night. We spent cyclone day playing outside in the garden. We even crossed a bridge.

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One upside of Dineo kind of coming to Hoedspruit was that it cooled the weather down a little bit. As we have sun most of the time and temperatures at this time of year are often around 35 degrees celcius, everyone gets really excited if it is rainy or cloudy. South Africans look forward to their rare rainy days as much as Brits look forward to their rare sunny ones. One person posted this comment on a Hoedspruit Facebook page last Friday – “1 hour of sun today and 6 hours tomorrow, enjoy this beautiful weather”. They weren’t kidding. They love a bit of cloud. It is weird for us as Brits to hear everyone ecstatic about the beautiful cloudy / rainy weather. Dineo’s cooler weather meant that our toddler slept better and therefore we, his zombie parents, slept better. Noggs has been struggling to sleep through the night since we returned to SA in mid January. On the night that Dineo rained a bit he slept through and until 6:30 am (halle-fing-lujah! he normally gets up at 5:30 or somedays at 4:30 am which means we are permanently knackered). We think not being a sweaty beast at night helped him sleep.

We are very happy with our sunny days. Noggs plays in his little blue shell shaped paddling pool almost every afternoon. Weirdly, it is the exact same paddling pool that Sam and Chloe had in Yorkshire in the 1980’s. The fact that this item only just made it here illustrates how retro Africa can be. Noggs is reliving parts of my 1980’s childhood too. Sam recently downloaded the very first Sesame Street episodes for Noggs; afros, vintage clothes, and all. We watch it together sometimes and I wonder if I watched the same episode when I was 21 months old and living in Cairo. Noggs definitely prefers Paw Patrol to retro Sesame Street though!

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Me-shell

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Sunny days, sweeping the clouds away with my giant afro

A family in Hoedspruit recently had a big sale of second hand items before moving abroad. We went to scavenge for bargains. We bought an awesome industrial type fan for 20 rands (£1.20) and we are loving it. We have been teaching Noggs not to touch it so he doesn’t get his little fingers hurt in the rotating blades. As a result, he now calls the fan ‘no touching’ and sometimes talks about it as he is falling asleep. So we are now keeping a bit cooler inside the house as well as in the pool.

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No touching!

So that’s me done talking about the weather except for one final fact for the world’s leaders. Climate change is real and needs action now, you muppets! Don’t make us buy another fan or have more cyclone days or endanger our planet’s incredible wildlife by denying that.


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Our house, their habitat

There are a lot of big animals living outside our house.

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Nogg’s little footprint next to a giraffe’s big footprint

The inside of our house is home to a lot of animals as well. Not all of them are as cute as Nogg’s cuddly toys.

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Noggs has recently started putting his teddies to bed. He tucks them in, gives them some storybooks, turns on the nightlight, and kisses them good night. It’s too cute.

Insects:

The dreaded flatties – There are super fast, super big spiders in South Africa called flatties because they sit flat on the walls. They aren’t harmful but they seriously freak Sam out! He thinks they are gross. Katy is in charge of catching and releasing them outside upon request. These requests are fairly regular but they are not always successful due to the quickness and shrewdness of the flattie.

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Flatties – they are as big as a horse…sticker!

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Flatties – they are so fast, they blur photos!

Shongololos – Millipedes are  affectionately called shongololos here. The name shongololo comes from an African word “ukushonga” which means ‘to roll up’ because when they feel threatened they roll up into a ball. Noggs likes to touch them and watch them. He can’t quite say shongololo so he calls the shokos.

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Shoko!

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Petting a millipede

Dung beetles – After the rains a lot of dung beetles come out. They find poo, roll it into giant balls, push the balls long distances, and then have babies in the poo. Nice. Sometimes they fight over poo or females will lazily hitch a ride on their mate’s poo ball while he pushes it.

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Get off my poo!

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Rolling poo into a perfect ball

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Watching poo roll by the front door. Bye bye poo.

Scorpions – Scorpions are not our favourite house guests but they are part of life in the bush. We sometimes find scorpions stuck in the bathtub in the mornings and scuttling around on the floor at night. The ones with the big pinchers and slim tails are not very venomous and the ones with the skinny pinchers and fat tails are the dangerous ones. We get both. Lucky us.

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Scorpion in the bathtub.

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Catching a scorpion to release outside

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Fat tailed nasty scorpion upon release

Geckos and lizards:

Because we have such a plethora of insect life, we have geckos and lizards that eat them which is jolly good despite their poo getting everywhere. One of Nogg’s first words was gecko and he loves seeing them, although he freaks out a bit if one touches him.

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Munching some insects

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Lizard basking in the sun on the sofa

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Gecko

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We often find gecko tails on the porch in the morning and try to grab them quick so Noggs doesn’t put them in his mouth. Just to gross Chloe out, we here is Wam’s toe.

Snakes:

So far (pounding on wood) we haven’t had a snake in this house. This does happen fairly often in the area where we stay though so we are always keeping an eye out, especially as there are a fair few venomous ones. We did have a snake lay her eggs near our house which hatched everywhere. We found the fresh shells soon afterwards. That grossed Katy out. Sam took photos.

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Snake hole with eggs

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Snakey eggs

Small mammals:

BatsOur house is also a bat hotel. We like bats but they are getting a bit much. They poo and wee all over our porch all the time. They sometimes get caught inside our bedroom and fly around our bed while we are trying to sleep. When we came back from holiday, we found a petrified bat in our mosquito net. One decided to make a home in Nogg’s schoolbag and then flew out when Katy opened it. We had to catch it with a mixing bowl to release it. We do like bats but we wouldn’t mind it they spent more time outside and less time inside. Here is my poem about bats: Fly bats, be free, and roost in trees rather than schoolbags please.

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One of the two species of bats that live on and in our house

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Morning bat poo shower to sweep up

Birds – There are active five birds nests hanging off the edge of our roof. Now we’re not bird experts but I think they are occupied by cut throat finches (what a cool name like little avian pirates!). They don’t come inside but they do dive bomb towards your head if you walk under their nests (kamikaze pirates, even cooler!!).

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Nest

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Kamikaze pirates resting before their next attack


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Fossils and freezers: PhDone – the beansy edition

Writing a PhD thesis is tough and it takes a long time. Amy Poehler said, “The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.”

I mixed the challenges of writing a 411 page thesis with the sleep deprivation of raising a child under two and the demands of running a busy research project. Crazy times. But despite this, I enjoyed writing up a lot of the time. Sometimes it actually was like uncovering fossils…I think. I have never actually uncovered a fossil but I did find a shark’s tooth at the beach once. That was pretty cool. The fossil moments were when everything seemed to come together.

That’s until I got near to the end or what I thought was the end. Then it was all screwdrivers and freezers all day long. At this point, I just wanted it done, finished, vamoosed, no matter what it took. It was kind of like pregnancy. Being pregnant was fine until the last few weeks. At that point, I just wanted him out no matter what. I’d had enough.

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About to hand in my thesis – writing is hard!

At the end of September 2016, exactly 4 years after starting the PhD, I submitted my thesis. It was over! I was elated.

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Celebrating the first submission of my PhD

But here’s the thing about finishing a PhD, it is not clear-cut. Most people don’t just get to cross it off the to do list when they hand in. I think finishing a PhD is like a TV villain that keeps coming back. The protagonist thinks they’ve defeated the baddie and so they celebrate and relax. But the baddie was just stunned and comes back with a vengeance to attack again. Then the good guy has to fight again. This time maybe he banishes the baddie to a desert island or puts him in a rocket heading towards the sun. But in the next episode the baddie will somehow find a way to boomerang back for revenge.

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My viva in mid-December was the return of the stunned villain. I had romantic notions that the day of my viva would be filled with champagne, joyous congratulations, and revelry. I thought I would feel like a knight who defeated a dragon. This did not happen. Instead, I unfortunately had a bad viva experience and I felt like the dragon burnt me to a crispy ember. It sucked. And on top of that, I had a list of corrections to do. My PhD was not finished. There were more words to be written. I knew there would be, but I thought it would have happened in a different way.

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Book with a creepy cover that I had to read for my corrections. Glad to get that scary thing off my desk!

Towards the end of January I submitted my corrected thesis and last week I heard that my corrections have been accepted and I have passed. Passed as in done, done, done, no more writing. I am a graduand. This is a word I learned from Sam and it means a person who is eligible to graduate, but who has not yet graduated. Sweet weird word. Graduation is in June but as it is in Durham and I am not, I am not planning on going so I will have to wear a bed sheet and a weird hat around the house on my graduation day instead. I already had a graduation in Durham Cathedral so I don’t feel like I’m missing out too much.

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Some of the best lines of email I’ve ever received

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Graduating with a BSc at Durham Cathedral well over 10 years ago. This cape is a yawn compared to the elaborate hat and gown required for a PhD graduation.

As someone who loves crossing accomplishments off of to do lists and feeling the satisfaction of a job well done, the ever-moving finish line of completing a PhD was hard to cope with. But I’m happy to brandish my pen and cross it off my list now. PhDone.