Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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Local is lekker: being a bit more South African

Living at a research centre on the top of a mountain in South Africa for five years was an incredible experience. But culturally, it wasn’t a very South African one. It is sometimes the case that wildlife research and conservation volunteering in Africa is conducted by foreigners rather than locals. Volunteering in conservation can be very pricey (yes, you often have to pay to volunteer which is a bit of a jutaposition in my opinion). This is challenging for young inexperienced ecologists who need to gain experience to advance their careers. The prices inevitably dissuade potential local volunteers. The research assistants who volunteered with us had to pay a fairly high fee to the managers of the property to cover some of their living expenses. These funds are often essential to keep research centres functioning. As a result, we were primarily surrounded by Europeans, Americans, and Australians who could afford to volunteer, rather than South Africans. Research centres situated in remote locations can be quite bubble-like which amplifies the cultures within. When talking to a few of our volunteers who had been in the country for awhile, I was surprised about their impressions and knowledge of South Africa, as these seemed quite limited due to living in the ‘bubble’. However, they were extremely knowledgeable on primate behaviour and troop interactions which they witnessed day in and day out.

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Our international research assistants blowing bubbles on Noggs’ first birthday.

Sam and I spent a lot more time off the mountain than our volunteers collecting data, attending meetings, purchasing supplies, and working with communities. We tried to take our research assistants with us whenever possible. We also had our own car so we could travel more easily in our time off.

In the year since we moved to Hoedspruit we have been living a more South African experience on a daily basis. It is nice for our son to be surrounded by the South African culture to a greater extent. He says ja instead of yes, even though he’s the most English boy in his class. He says eina instead of ouch when he gets hurt sometimes. He has kids who speak lots of different languages around him every day. He eats mealie pap porridge for breakfast at school. Sam eats rusks (hard biscuits) and Noggs shares them. Noggs also sometimes has rooibos (redbush) tea and loves droewors (dried meat sticks).

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Another South African specialty lurking in our fridge – Monkey Gland Sauce.

I think that living here also feels more South African due to the landscape. At Lajuma it was sometimes quite jungly and misty which felt more like Jumanji than South Africa. But here it is sunnier, drier, and we have plains game like zebras, impalas, and giraffes outside so it feels more like Africa, more like the Lion King.

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The misty Soutpansberg Mountains.

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Photo taken from our bedroom window in Hoedspruit.

We braaied (barbequed) by the river at our estate last weekend. The braai is a very South African institution. We haven’t actually been braaiing as much here as we used to at Lajuma. Shockingly, our house doesn’t have a braai stand but luckily there is a beautiful and secluded public one nearby.

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Braaiing by the river.

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The gate down to the braai spot. We often hear hippos calling from our house.

We celebrated Mandela Day on July 18th for the first time. Every year on Nelson Mandela’s birthday, South Africans are encouraged to give 67 minutes (one for every year of Mr Mandela’s public service) back to the community. The message behind Mandela day is that everyone has the ability and the responsibility to change the world for the better. Noggs and I spent our 67 minutes doing a litter pick on a hike to a local waterfall. We filled a whole bag up for recycling and had a lovely morning out.

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Despite signs and monkey proof bins around, we still collected a whole bag of rubbish.

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Helping out with the litter pick.

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Made it to the waterfall. Time for playing.

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Wearing trousers, socks, and shoes didn’t deter Noggs from paddling. Like all mothers of dragons, I mean toddlers, I had spare clothes packed.

Over the past few weeks from within our wildlife estate, we can hear singing every morning and evening. We found out that this is part of a ceremony of boys becoming men (nothing to do with the band, thankfully) during a circumcision ceremony. The teenagers go to the bush to be circumcised and stay there for 21 days in seclusion and away from women. A traditional surgeon preforms the circumcision without anesthetic. The singing celebrates their transition to manhood. Unfortunately, traditional circumcision ceremonies can result in death or serious injury.

The people we meet now are mostly South African or long term expats. Being part of a community means we are getting more involved in national holidays and local events. Also, living off the mountain has made it easier to explore our local area. It has been really nice to feel a bit more South African but I am still very aware that we are mostly experiencing only one version of South Africa. We are involved with a quite privileged, primarily white version of how South Africans live and this certainly does not fully represent the complexity of the country and its many cultural layers and lifestyles. This diversity is something that we want to make our son aware of as he grows and encourage him to explore and embrace.


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Eco-parenting in South Africa

Having children is bad for the environment. A new study found that by far the most effective action a person can do to reduce their carbon emissions is to have fewer children. Having one fewer child equates to a reduction of 58.6 tonnes of CO2 for each year of a parent’s life. Other actions are very important to reduce CO2 but the impacts are considerably less. For example, living car free is the next best action and this saves 2.4 tonnes of CO2 annually. Avoiding one roundtrip transatlantic flight saves 1.60 tonnes of CO2. Reducing CO2 emissions is absolutely essential to avoid severe global warming and all of our individual lifestyle choices, from how we dry our clothes to whether we reproduce, contribute.

I have been aware that having children is bad for the environment for a long time. It seems fairly obvious if you think about the maths. There are already more humans alive than the planet can sustain and the human population is rising at a scary 10,000 net per hour. Children who have highly consumptive lifestyles like many born in America, Europe, and Australia use up far more resources than the majority of children in less developed countries. It is not just about having less people on the planet; it’s also about living more sustainably and passing this lifestyle onto the next generation.

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Haubles of people at the Loi Krathong festival in Bangkok, November 2011

We wanted a family (well I was ready and I gently pestered Sam till he said okay – isn’t that how having a baby works?). As environmentalists, we decided that the way forward for us is to have a small family and to try to reduce our environmental impact. Eco-parenting is also a way to reduce the financial costs of having a child. That was a much appreciated bonus since conservation biologists tend to line their pockets with fresh faecal samples, not cash. After the baby, we were carrying leopard, hyaena, and human poo samples around which felt a bit excessive. Oh, how we hoped the sample bags / nappies were properly secured.

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Wee Noggs

We started our eco-parenting quest with cloth nappies, reusable cloth wet wipes, and biodegradable nappy liners. I remember seeing a picture like this showing how much waste disposable nappies create for just one child and being horrified.

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Disposable nappies take up to 500 years to decompose. I hated the idea that a giant pile of pooey stinky rubbish from our child would be around long long after his lifetime. What a legacy.

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Cloth nappies have been a good experience for us. We had to adapt at first because when Noggs was born we lived in a tent with almost no power. The tent was upgraded and we made a plan to get the nappies clean. We have enjoyed cloth nappies, aside from a few instances of nappy rash that we think were associated with using cloth nappies in a hot country and childcare workers sometimes not changing the cloth nappies as often as we do at home. It has been great knowing that we made less of an impact on the environment. We used disposables when traveling for convenience or if we were ever particularly worried about nappy rash. Now Noggs is pretty much potty trained, we will be thinking about selling our cloth nappy collection soon. It is satisfying to think that we will get some money back. It is like getting a reward for surviving potty training. Congrats, you wiped up enough wee wee and poo poo, here is some money.

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Opening up our box of cloth nappies and cloth wet wipes

If anyone feels nervous or unsure about the decision to use cloth nappies, I would definitely say go for it. Ask me if you want advice. Yes, it is a bit more work but not much, and it is worth it for the environment and for your wallet.

We also personally tried to buy almost everything for Noggs as a baby secondhand. Less impact. His second hand cot was a tad rickety as a result but it lasted. All the toys and clothes he grows out of are passed on to someone else who can reuse them. We made all of Noggs’ baby food ourselves which was more environmentally friendly, cheaper, and probably healthier. Less food miles and less packaging. We try not to buy juice boxes or disposable water bottles. We refill reusable cups and bottles all the time. We have started deliberately consuming less meat. Quorn is awesome by the way. I’m not sure I could fully give up babalas droewors (South African dried sausage-like snacks infused with chili) though. Living abroad makes stopping international air travel difficult but we don’t fly very often.

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Beautiful wooden secondhand high chair Noggs received from a friend of ours

Hopefully, planning a small family and implementing more environmental childrearing choices are reducing our carbon footprint. That way I can save my guilt for other things like occasionally binging on too much droewors.

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Babalas droewors

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Some of the South African delicacies we had at our wedding

Here are some links on eco-parenting and cloth nappying:

Eco-friendly parenting

10 tips for green parenting

How to be an eco-parent

Growing up green

Cloth nappying

What are modern cloth nappies?


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Having an adventure

A few weeks ago on the drive to Noggs’ preschool we spotted a hot air balloon overhead. We see them many mornings as they fly over us to view the wildlife in the reserve with the mountain backdrop. Noggs pointed to basket of the hot air balloon and said, “Look people, they are having an adventure!”. This surprised me because I didn’t realize he knew the word adventure. We also didn’t realize he knew the word disgusting until we gave him some medicine. It’s like he has a secret dictionary in his head which he is slowly divulging word nugget by word nugget. He also knows words we don’t even know such as ‘poo poo lekker’. We’re not sure what it means but apparently poo poo lekker is naughty. Astounding stuff.

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This morning Noggs and Sam pulled the wheelie bin to the end of the driveway for collection. When they returned after a little while, it was announced that they took longer than expected because they were “having an adventure”. This adventure involved riding Nogg’s bike, going on a bush walk, and collecting rocks and sticks.

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Running through the leaves.

I often consider having an adventure to mean riding in hot air balloons, flying to exotic places, and experiencing something completely exotic, something very big and out of the ordinary. To Noggs though, his definition of having an adventure can be flying in the sky but it can also be picking up a cheese puff he found on the ground outside a shop and eating it. Both are equally thrilling to him.

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Having an adventure.

Although I definitely crave ticking countries off my list and having big adventures, I am starting to appreciate the small adventures in our backyard more because of Noggs’ more open minded definition of having an adventure.

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Climbing in a digger we found in a car park so Noggs could pretend to drive.

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Having giraffes in the backyard and Kruger National Park down the road definitely makes it easier to have adventures.

And to end, a quote…”Enjoy the little things in life because one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.” (Kurt Vonnegut Jr.)


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Old men in Africa

I love how untamed Africa is. The sun scorches, red dirt stains your takkies (sneakers), and spotted hyaenas whoop at night.

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It is still possible to live where there are free-roaming lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos, and hippos. Sadly, this amazing continent is facing major wildlife population declines because of (you guessed it) humans. For example, giraffe  numbers have fallen from around 155,000 in 1985 to 97,000 in 2015. Lions were estimated at 450,000 in the 1940s and now there may be as few as 20,000 animals.

Despite these declines (which conservationists like us are trying to reverse), there is still plenty of adventure left in Africa. I think that the level of wilderness based adventure South Africa has to offer is still pretty high (especially if you go out there looking for it), but I also think that it used to be higher when the country was less developed. I love listening to old men in Africa because they tell the best adventure stories of an Africa where life was tougher and rawer.

Southern Africa has changed drastically in the past century. Now large wildlife is mostly confined to fenced areas (albeit very large fenced areas), many roads are paved, we have maps, phones, and GPS units. Old white men in Africa wearing khaki field clothes and knee high socks tell stories of adventuring across Botswana (Bechuanaland), Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), Namibia (South West Africa), and Tanzania (Tanganyika) in barely running landrovers or on rickety trains. They remember times with no roads or proper maps, just being out in the bush fending for oneself. They had close encounters with wildlife and there weren’t swarms of tourists around. As young men, they were hardy, sun-worn and tougher than nails. They bandaged their own wounds, fought their own battles, and knew how to survive. These men know an Africa that I somewhat romanticise because of the vast expanses of untouched wild areas. I could listen to old men in Africa talk for hours. I hungrily seek out and consume memoirs and stories of life in the Africa from earlier days – books like Mukiwa by Peter Godwin, The Power of One by Bryce Courtney, I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallman.

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Wearing my old man knee high bush socks while camping in an unfenced Big 5 area in Botswana

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The old Victoria Falls train station

I can still find places in parts of Zimbabwe and Botswana that I believe might resemble old Africa. We camp in Big 5 areas with no fences and no neighbours. We wake to find lion or leopard spoor outside the canvas tent flaps. We drive across empty expanses and don’t see anyone for a long time other than battered looking donkey carts and their drivers. Our mobile phones have no reception and there is no power to charge them anyways. Our landy gets stuck in mud and we make a plan to get out which may involve a whole village pushing in mud up to their waists while elephants wade in the river nearby. This Africa does still exist and it makes me feel alive.

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Carrying our own fuel across the country and fueling up the landy bakkie for fieldwork in Zimbabwe

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Hiking in Swaziland, bumping into wildlife, and getting very lost

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Surrounded by elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana

South Africa is a land of old men remembering a grittier wilder Africa. Not all aspects of this old Africa were good and not all aspects of this new Africa are good. We love South Africa and we think it is ideal for raising a young child. There is plenty of adventure but there are also good hospitals nearby. There are amazing animals you can live amongst but you can chose to live with the ones who are not going to munch up your toddler in one bite. There is food in the supermarket and power. But I also crave the rawer wilder Africa from time to time, the old man’s Africa, and I am looking forward to taking my son there when he is a little bigger. I want him to know this world and tell the stories one day.

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Lucky to be in conservation

I do occasional guest lecturing on my research experiences and findings for college students visiting the Greater Kruger area through African Conservation Experience. It is an awesome opportunity that I love. When I drove out to a lodge to give my most recent lecture, I missed my turnoff and ended up looking for somewhere to turn around. It was a very quiet Sunday morning and I came to a big metal gate across the road. I was about to turn around when I saw someone lying on the ground by the gate. A motorcycle lay haphazardly next to him and he only had one shoe on. It was clear that he had had an accident and that he had been there awhile. I stopped and I helped him. Once I knew he was in safe hands, I turned my car around, found my turnoff, and did my lecture on leopard population dynamics.

At the end of the lecture, one of the teachers asked me to share my advice to the students about how to get into conservation. I talked about doing the right university degrees, working hard, being persistent, obtaining lots of field experience, and networking. I didn’t talk about being lucky, although reflecting on it, I think being lucky has influenced how my career has progressed so far.

Working in conservation is tough. A recently published paper describes the challenges that conservation biologists face including conflicts between family and work interests, and working under stressful conditions that can lead to burnout. It is a tough field but the study also concluded that most conservation biologists enjoy their careers. It is a job people do for the love of it.

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Two tough conservation biologists in the field

In conservation, there is a surprising amount of competition and a whole lot of rejection involved with getting jobs, finding funding, and publishing results. In my experience, no matter how much effort and hard work you put in, rejection is still a big part of working in wildlife conservation. My PhD supervisor told me that I would become calloused to this over time.  I’m getting there but I am definitely still a soft-shelled crab and some days it feels like I’m sandwiched between two pieces of bread about to get munched. A bit of luck mixed with a lot of hard work and determination helps to sway things in the right direction though. Getting my last job in conservation was partially due to luck, and luck was a large component of my PhD funding.

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I think that luck is lots of little interplaying variables that create a favourable outcome through a complex chain of cause and effect. Some of the variables are completely out of your control and others are not. My mum told me that she thought that some people are born lucky. I used to find four leaf clovers all the time as a child and press them in the pages of my dictionary. I have won a quite unattractive sweatsuit, an iron, and 10 pizzas in competitions. I thought I was pretty lucky in general. Looking at my amazing husband and incredible son, I know I’m still very lucky, even though I don’t find four leaf clovers anymore. This could be due to living in the African bush though; there aren’t too many clovers here.

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Career-wise, I am in a position now where I have put in years of hard work and I am continuing to put in more, while waiting for a little bit of luck. On Twitter someone posted about how they were counting their money in terms of how many months post-PhD they could afford to be unemployed. That’s the hard bit, not knowing how long it will be until the right job comes up and you get selected from the hundreds of other desperate and deserving souls, or basically until you get lucky. But here is the thing about wildlife conservationists, we don’t give up, we wait, we work hard, and we put up with a lot of challenging circumstances because we do it for the love of the job and for the love of the planet. We believe in hard work and luck. It is definitely worth it.

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A lucky day when I found my brown hyaena collar that had detached in the bush

The last things conservation biologists need while they are soldiering on are funding cuts and poor environmental policies. This just makes it even tougher for us to get lucky in following our dream career paths and harder for us to make the differences that the world’s wildlife desperately need right now. Everyone should support conservation because well, if we don’t, there will be no future for this planet and its wildlife. I’ll get off my soapbox now.

The motorcycle guy broke a few bones but he was okay. His mum said that God must have sent me. I don’t think so. I think I just suck at following directions and that he got lucky that I found him and that I stopped.


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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Every June as winter settles in and it starts to feel crisp and cold, I get a Christmassy feeling. Even after years of Christmases in the southern hemisphere, I still associate Christmas with cold weather. I feel ready to cook decedent foods and exchange presents. In December when we’re super sweaty and hot, I struggle to drum up the Christmas spirit in the same way. The decorations get hung but they look false and out of place. Santa looks hot and uncomfortable in his coat and boots. The advent calendars drip melting chocolate out of their sealed doors.

It is June and I have started singing Christmas carols again. We are wearing long trousers, coats, and jumpers again. I even cracked out the gloves. We have become so acclimatized to the heat that the roughly 13 degree C temperatures at night to 23 degree C day temperatures feel jarringly low. We are very happy though that we are in a proper house with walls and not freezing in a tent on a mountain.

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Wearing flannel Christmas pyjamas again and feeling very excited about toys.

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Thomas the tank engine doing a wheelie.

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Playing with cars in pretend snow (corn flour).

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Snow day.

We’ve been in Hoedspruit for almost a year now and the signs in nature remind me that the time has passed and it’s winter again.

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The big aloey plants at the end of our road are flowering again. My plant id skills have a long way to go.

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The trees are looking sparse as they drop their leaves.

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Zebra poo without dung beetles = winter.

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The impala lilies are flowering again.

It’s been a pretty amazing year and having a small child helps me to appreciate how far we’ve all come. Noggs learned to walk, talk, started preschool, and became a more proper human. I passed my PhD. Sam got a postdoc position. It may not be Christmas now but I’m going to sing anyways. This year I keep singing the John Lennon song ‘Merry Xmas (War is Over)’. I wonder if this has some link to the end of the PhD…


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Simple living and Asian dumplings

Recently, I have been helping an upmarket safari company put together a guide of recommended restaurants in Cape Town and the Winelands. Unsurprisingly, trawling restaurant websites made me think about food. And it also made me appreciate how unponcy my world is. Some of these restaurants made me laugh at their pretentiousness. For example, one restaurant talks about how the simplicity in their food is deceptively complicated to achieve and then it has a full-page glossary at the end of their menu so diners can translate the names of their dishes and ingredients. This does not seem particularly simple. Additionally, I’m not convinced that simplicity is overly complicated. I peel a banana and I plonk it in a bowl. Noggs eats it. Not complicated. Although, if this was served in a posh restaurant it would have a name like ‘banane dans la bol’ and be sold for 30 dollars on a giant white porcelain plate with five drops of jus de naartije  (simple translation: orange juice) scattered around it. A lot of the restaurants I wrote about boast innovative and exciting combinations of flavours.  One posh restaurant served Gorgonzola ice cream avec posh spices. Gorgonzola ice cream seems like a weird combination, and not the kooky fun Gonzo from the Muppets type of weird, more like the creepy possible sexpest kind of weird .

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Paw paw.

So I’m glad we lead an unponcy life. I’m glad that when we go on safari, we mostly camp and self-drive, and put up our own tent and carry our own gear. I’m glad that we don’t go out and buy new designer clothes all the time, but instead we sew up the holes in the ones we have. Yes, having money is very nice so you don’t have to worry and you have a safety net for tough times and occassional splurges, and that is a state we are would certainly like to achieve. However, it’s nice to be happy with what you have, look forward to treats, have an environmental conscious, and be approachable. And the more I read about raising children, the more I think that simple is a good way to go. Chef Gordan Ramsey was in the media recently saying that when he flies with his family, he and his wife sit in first class and his kids fly coach because “they haven’t worked anywhere near hard enough to afford that”. That’s pretty extreme but I get where he’s coming from. Values and hard work are important.

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Back to food, despite slagging off poncy restaurants, we do like good food. We are lucky to have a monthly farmer’s market nearby and lots of fresh local fruits, which we use to make  smoothies every morning. Noggs is generally a good eater and we are so grateful since feeding can be a battle with toddlers. He will try almost everything, especially if it is on someone else’s plate. He loves meat, pasta, and fruits. Every evening we eat dinner on our porch as we watch the sunset. The colony of bats that lives in our house flies out in a big procession as we sit down. Sometimes animals like nyalas, zebras, and warthogs come near and we watch them graze. Noggs grabs a handful of his dinner and extends it out to them even though they are 20 metres away. He wants to share. Most of the time we listen to the birds and to Noggs listing all the animals that he thinks are sleeping (“Big giraffes sleeping, baby giraffes sleeping, zebras sleeping, owls sleeping…”). This is his favourite dinner time topic. We burn anti-mossie candles and when we are done eating Noggs loves blowing them out and watching the smoke rise. Then we wash up and pack lunches for tomorrow. It’s simple and nice.

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Asian food is my favourite. Our trips to South Korea and Japan were incredible food wise. I would go back there in a heartbeat. Even the food from 7-11 in Japan was mind-blowing. I love all the seafood. I love sitting on the floor. I love green tea. I love almost every part of their diet but especially dumplings (gyoza in Japan and mandu in Korea). I could scoff those tasty little nuggets of joy all day long. Unfortunately, our town in the South African bushveld does not have many Asian options, either restaurant or ingredients wise. So when we go to Cape Town for the South African Wildlife Management Association conference in September, we will be seeking Japanese food and filling our luggage with ingredients so we can cook them at home.

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Gyoza that we made at a cooking class in Kyoto.

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Japanese gyoza from 7-11. Amazeballs. Just Amazeballs.

So basically as I get older, I am realising that I like most things undeceptively simple, down to Earth. I  drive a Landy and wear Birkenstocks. I’m not looking for fancy or showy.  We have more than enough and I think living in the African bush helps us appreciate that. It’s a slower, softer, honest life. Giraffes eat leaves and work hard to get those leaves and they seem pretty content. I imagine that people often feel hungry when they leave posh restaurants.

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Cooking up a storm. Plastic eggs, peas, bacon, and corn – now that’s a meal.