Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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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.


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Bye bye baby

Noggs turned two yesterday and we had a lovely celebration with cake, presents, and balloons. At age two and very almost fully potty trained, it feels like we have just about left the baby years behind and I for one could not be happier.

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Loving birthday balloons and stickers.

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Celebrating his birthday at preschool.

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Sharing birthday cupcakes with friends.

I follow several mummy blogs so I can compare parenting experiences with other people since I don’t have many mum friends nearby. Some of the blog posts I have read discuss how hard some parents find letting go of their baby and allowing their child to become independent. I have not struggled with that. If we were a family of birds, we would be something migratory and a bit funky like hoopoes. And if we were birds, I think I might have nudged chick Noggs out the nest if he wasn’t flying on his own. Off you go now. Spit spot.

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Baby stuff is hard to keep up with – vaccines almost every month, bottles to sterilise, constant feeding, rarely sleeping, solid food introduction, baby food mashing, sleep training, constantly moving up clothes sizes, teething, etc. And it isn’t often rewarded with much interaction from your infant. In the first year Noggs was cute but a bit non-descript and not super robust. Even dressed like a bear cub, he lacked most bearlike qualities other than fuzziness.

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Baby bear.

It has only been in the last year that Noggs has acquired his wickedly awesome personality. We have loved watching him develop and become funny and sociable. Now we have conversations, cuddles, do pretend play, and go on proper adventures. This morning Noggs and I went on a walk to splash in puddles, throw rocks into the river, and watch beetles and shongololos cross the road. I am happy to say bye to the baby years and welcome all the fun of the toddler years. We are ready for the ‘terrible twos’, although I think it is going to be a pretty spectacular year.

 

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Cuddles and adventures.


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The two stories inside every PhD

In association with the publicity surrounding an article that we published recently on leopard population declines in the Soutpansberg Mountains, Durham University invited me to write a blog for them about my PhD experiences. If you would like to read it in situ, please follow this link – otherwise I’m going to post it below. It’s been a real pleasure doing some guest blogging recently. I am doing some guest lecturing about leopard research and conservation at the end of the month for an Africa Conservation Experience group visiting to the Hoedspruit area. Bits and bobs, keeping things interesting. Speaking of interesting, a giraffe walked right behind me for about 10 minutes yesterday and I saw a massive black mamba at dusk. Noggs also vomitted all over us and the sofa today. Keeping things interesting.

 

The two stories inside every PhD

 

I enrolled at Durham University for the first time a few days after my 18th birthday. I had never lived in the UK or away from home before and I felt like I’d landed on another planet where I couldn’t understand the language (Geordie). But I quickly found my way, my people, and my confidence.

 

I spent my twenties doing a Masters, travelling the world, working, and getting married. Just after my 29th birthday, I enrolled at Durham again, this time as a PhD student. As before, I had some initial (but very different) reservations. I wanted to do a PhD but I also had career ambitions and I wanted to start a family in the near future. Luckily, the flexibility of the programme and my supportive supervisors enabled me to find my way.

 

I did my PhD in an untraditional way and it was tough, messy, stressful, and incredible. I spent the majority of my PhD living in a tent on a mountain in South Africa while managing Professor Russell Hill’s Primate and Predator Project. And this was great. In between fieldwork and writing my thesis, I collared leopards and baboons, assisted farmers with human-wildlife conflict, supervised volunteers, worked with film crews, and wrote a children’s book for local schools. My PhD was a big priority in my life but it wasn’t my only priority. My job was also very important to me. Halfway through my PhD, I had a baby and appeasing a small angry human became another significant part of my life.

 

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Although doing a PhD can feel pretty all-consuming, I found that it is possible to pursue other pursuits as well. Reflecting back on the four years of my doctorate, I realise that although it was a crazy time of submitting chapters, checking project data, catching cobras in houses, and mixing up baby food, the variety helped me enjoy my PhD more and it suited me. I was so busy multi-tasking and writing to do lists that I seldom become frustrated by my PhD or bored of my thesis. Getting a solid hour to work on my thesis was a rare luxury that I looked forward to immensely and embraced.

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Recently, I finished my PhD, took some time to breathe, and entered the mystical post-PhD beyond which consists of job hunting and publication submissions with a two year old running around bringing me cups of imaginary juice while pretending to be a frog. My unconventional PhD experience has given me something extremely positive to write about in cover letters for jobs. It shows that I am dynamic, organised, and ambitious. I’m not a one trick pony. I’m Doctor Many Ponies and I’m just as proud of that as I am of my thesis.

 

In conclusion, doing a PhD does not have to mean that everything else in your life goes on hold, but it certainly can if you want. Doing a PhD is about doing it your way at a pace that suits you. One of my friends spent a term in Iceland through the Erasmus Postgraduate Scheme. Another friend had two children during her PhD. A course mate does his PhD part-time so he can manage a huge annual rally and motorcycle show. I ran a field site in Africa and recited this little piggy on my son’s tiny toes. The list goes on because at the end of a PhD, there are two stories – the one you write in your thesis and your personal experiences. Just as no two theses are the same, no two PhD experiences are the same. You have to make both your own. 

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Conservation optimism

When I was a kid and I first learned about all the environmental disasters happening in the world (climate change, holes in the ozone, pollution, mounting piles of indecomposable rubbish, etc) I was completely horrified and petrified. I was horrified that our species was responsible for these terrible things and I was horrified that every human being on the planet wasn’t up in arms doing everything they could to stop it. I was petrified that all living things on the planet were going to die as a result of humanity’s greed, including my family and I.

As scared as I was, I felt compelled to do something to help and I felt optimistic. I spent my childhood recycling and preaching about the environment to anyone who would listen. I was the president of the Eco-club at my high school. I studied environmental science at university so I could be part of the solution. My adult life so far has been spent working and researching in the field of conservation.

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And now here I am in my thirties, quite educated and involved in conservation and environmental science and sadly, I think I am becoming pessimistic about our planet’s future. This transition is a culmination of several things.

1)   It still it feels like people (for the most part) blindly ignore environmental issues. Recently many government policies from the US especially seem to be based on decisions that inflict serious damage to our planet. Decades later and I’m still in disbelief that despite scientific advances and improved communication systems, the majority of people on this planet do not seem to be overly concerned about the environment and governments are not doing everything possible to protect it. WTF! The environment is life people! It’s everything we need to survive and humans treat this planet like crap.

2)   The more I learn about conservation or human population trends the more depressed I feel. There are scientific publications (including several of ours) coming out all the time predicting or confirming the extinction of incredible wildlife all over the world. This news makes people sad and even angry, but it still feels like not enough is being done on the ground. Not enough money or support is being invested in conservation.

3)   Finally, I personally feel a bit lost post-PhD. I spent the past 5.5 years completely engulfed in conservation work and research. Now post-PhD I’m ready to sink my teeth into a new project, to fight the conservation fight with gusto, but finding the right job or sourcing funding for research can be a slow and discouraging experience.

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Pimms, one of the leopards we were studying, was killed by a snare in 2015.

Wow, mega big sigh. Take a few sighs if you need. Sigh, sigh, sigh. If an environmentalist feels this way, what does that mean for the planet?

The point is coming up just now so don’t jump off the nearest cliff yet.

I, and we as a society, need to drum up some conservation optimism because that’s what my eight-year-old self would have wanted. Optimistic environmental doers were the people I was looking for as a kid. Yes, everything looks pretty bleak but you need hope and determination to win a battle. As a wildlife enthusiast, a scientist, an environmental citizen, and a mother, I am going to start rebuilding my conservation optimism.

There is a study that suggests that positive messages are more likely to motivate people to spread positivity and take action than negative ones are. There are positive conservation stories out there, really there are.

Here’s a few recent ones to reassure you:

– poaching is down in Luangwa Valley, Zambia because Community Markets for Conservation has been supporting local people in farming schemes and giving poachers alternative livelihood options.

– the lion guardian programme in East Africa has encouraged the Maasai to replace traditional lion hunts with guardianship.

Panthera created a fake leopard skin garment for people in South Africa to wear for traditional ceremonies and these have been widely accepted.

– a breeding population of tigers was unexpectedly found in eastern Thailand recently.

global tiger numbers increased in 2016 for the first time in nearly a century.

– the all female Black Mamba anti-poaching unit based near where we live has reduced poaching in a reserve in Greater Kruger to almost zero.

Here are some people who inspire me:

–       My ever-optimistic-never-give-up husband who is my constant inspiration.

–       My mum who composted, gardened, recycled, reused, and bought non-harmful products.

–       Noggs’ preschool class, the Earthtots (who are aged between 1 and 3 years old). They sort their rubbish and recycle it in bins. They go on nature walks and learn to protect the environment.

–       Several research assistants I supervised who have gone onto do amazing and inspirational conservation work.

–       People who choose to have small families or no children to lower their environmental impact.

–       People like Jane Goodall who share their environmental enthusiasm relentlessly.

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Recycling with Noggs on Earth Day.

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Yesterday was Earth Day and the fact that such a day exists is cause for celebration and optimism. But this Earth Day especially there was a lot of organised environmental optimism going around. Oxford University, the Interdiscipinary Centre for Conservation Science, ZSL and the Durrell Institute hosted a summit on conservation optimism last week. All over the world thousands of people joined marches for science to stand up against funding cuts to the sciences and environment agencies. It was amazing to see so many people getting involved and speaking out. Earth Day 2017 is a reminder that there are enough people who care – three of them live in our house.

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Our mini-bushwalk for Science, Earth Day 2017.


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Sleep and time: you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone

I was told that life would change completely after having a baby. Things are similar except my face looks older and Sam’s hair is greyer. We are more tired versions of our former selves with less time for non-toddler related activities (by the way toddler-related activities like making sandcastles, going to toy stores, climbing on play grounds and doing Easter egg hunts are very fun). But we still live in Africa, we still look for animals, eat chocolate (after Noggs goes to bed), do science, and travel.

I think we have been lucky in general though. Noggs is a pretty good sleeper. At almost two, he sleeps in his own bed – well kind of a bed, it’s a single mattress on the floor. Sam jokes that his bed looks like it belongs in a crack den which I think is pretty funny. Noggs sleeps through the night most nights. He goes to bed when he is told to without kicking up a fuss. But he wakes up at ridiculous times. A late morning for him is 5:30 am. An early morning is 3:45 am. I don’t think we have set an alarm clock since he was born. It has not been required. Noggs is our alarm clock but I wish it wouldn’t go off before dawn or on weekends. We are tired and poor Sam is the least morning person I know. Being tired sucks when you have to work in the day and you are not supposed to nap on the job. Naps should be a human right for everyone. I think it would make the world a better and more productive place.

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Noggs’ DIY bed

Some advice we received upon becoming parents is to sleep when your baby sleeps. This is a good idea in theory but it fails to acknowledge the fact that nothing would ever get done if parents did this. Noggs’ naptime is a window of productivity and opportunity to be embraced. It’s a rare moment to clean up, assemble cloth nappies, work on academic papers, go to the gym, or if you’re lucky, pursue hobbies quietly. We love naptime and plan our weekends accordingly so we do not disturb the sanctity of naptime.

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A day we are not ready for….

Loosing time to pursue personal interests has been another adjustment. I think that trying to carve out time for this is essential as it enables us to retain elements of our identity that are not solely linked with our roles as Mum and Dad. Personal time has become more precious and more appreciated as a result. The other night after Noggs went to sleep, amazingly I wasn’t too tired and also amazingly I was caught up with writing my paper and my postdoc proposal so I worked on my cross-stitch while I watched Home Alone. It was divine. I felt like myself and I remembered how awesome Home Alone is. I have been feeling Christmassy ever since.

I am aware that this sleeplessness will not last forever and that there will be a time when we stop being zombies and slowly morph into humans again. We are, in fact, hoping to implement a solution to the early morning wake up calls soon, thanks to Nanny in England. We are hoping that a toddler training clock will work its magic and encourage Noggs to sleep later or at least play quietly in his bed by himself (6 am would be incredible). A review of the clock on Amazon says, “Every once in a while the human race manages to discover or invent something that changes the future forever….The Gro-Clock Sleep Trainer is one such landmark advancement. This seemingly simple device took just two weeks to train my 23 month old twins to stay in bed and not wake Daddy up at 5am every day…This is the best thing I have ever bought…When my kids have grown up and no longer need this clock, I’m going to build a shrine around it and give thanks to it every day.” We have high expectations to say the least!  Come on Gro-Clock, we are desperate!

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Help me Gro(clock)bi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.

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Parents, like rebellions, are built on hope.

We are also aware that a time will come when we will regain our personal time and we will be able to paint, shoot arrows, learn to code, practice Afrikaans, play guitar, and watch Home Alone 2. The final piece of parenting advice that everyone keeps saying is how fast raising a child flies by. I am sure we will look back one day soon and agree, so for now the plan is to enjoy each day, appreciate all the funny things Noggs says and does, store up all the affection he gives us so we can get through the awkward teenage years, embrace naptimes, take lots of photos, love hard, and sleep later…unless the Gro-Clock works, come on Gro-Clock!

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Easter cuddles with Daddy…who needs sleep when you have this?


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Small boy, big adventures

We live very near one of the most famous areas for wildlife viewing in Africa, nay the world, Kruger National Park. It’s huge – the size of Wales or Israel – and there are loads of animals that could eat you or tear you to shreds. Spending time watching these animals is Sam and my idea of a good time. And we want to expose our son to as much of the wild as we can because what could be cooler for a kid (or anyone) than seeing animals most people only get see in the zoo or on TV in their natural habitat. Noggs has been to Kruger four times and he is under two years old. The first time he was only nine months old. We went again this weekend, just for one night of camping at Satara Rest Camp.

It’s easy to forget just how spoilt we are. I asked Noggs what animal he wanted to see most in Kruger and he said “baby giraffes”. I replied, “Hopefully we will see baby giraffes this weekend but if not, we will see them when get home.” How superbly lucky that this is our reality. Noggs watched a huge elephant for awhile when it blocked the road. He knew exactly what it was. He knows the names of all the animals. Many of the African animals are part of his everyday life. He sees them at home and at school since both places are situated on wildlife reserves. He doesn’t realise yet how special this is and that people fly across the world to see these animals in the wild on once in a lifetime trips. I love that he lives in a reality where seeing incredible megafauna is completely normal.

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Watching an elephant traffic jam while holding elephant.

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We set up our tent for the night. And Noggs loved camping because he got to break all the rules – he stayed up late and played on his bike outside in the dark. He ate lots of steak cooked on the braai and springbok droewors (meat sticks). Then he said “I want more meat”. He loves eating meat so much that we think he might be part Afrikaans.

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Noggs’ I’m breaking all the rules and eating a crisp which I never normally get to eat dance

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Giving giraffe a cuddle before bed

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Story time in the tent with mum

A tourist in the restaurant at Satara asked me what it was like bringing such a small child on safari. She was concerned Noggs would get bored with all the driving in the car. I told her how great Noggs does in Kruger but admitted that yes he does get bored in the car. For example, we had an amazing viewing of lions. At first, all we saw was a tuft of lion mane in the grass.

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Then the male got up and greeted the female lovingly. Awww.

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Then he proceeded to bang her while biting her neck. Less awww and more awesome.

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Noggs was not particularly interested. He had reached his car time threshold by that point in the game drive. When we got back to camp, he found a dirty bottle cap and a cigarette butt on the ground. These fascinated him way more than the lions did. And these items scared us, as parents, way more than the lions did too. “Noggs, put those down now! They are dirty! No, don’t even think about putting that in your mouth!”

But even though Noggs can get a bit bored in the car, Kruger is enjoyable for the smallest humans with a bit of planning – short drives, toys to play with, books, and snacks.

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Sticking out his tongue to concentrate while pushing cars

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Noggs – smaller than a cheetah, bigger than a giraffe

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Using jedi mind tricks to avoid sharing this muffin

Oh and Noggs got his wish and he saw baby giraffes in Kruger.

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Yes, I am aware that these are not baby giraffes. No photos were taken of them, but Sam took this cool vulture pic. Enjoy this instead please.


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Game Scouts

Scouting was a really important part of my youth. I quit a lot of extraciricular activities when I was kid, mainly things I wasn’t good at like every sport on the planet. But I stuck with girl scouts for an impressively long time. All my closest friends were my scouting friends and it didn’t matter if we ended up in different classes in school or even if we went to different schools because we would see each other every Tuesday night and a lot of weekends too for scouting. When we got to middle school being a scout became quite uncool so we called girl scouts ‘GS’ instead. ‘Are you going to GS tonight?’ ‘See you at GS.’ I think we thought we were being clever by disguising our uncool hobby with a code name but looking back, GS was a pretty easy code to crack. I stopped scouting when I moved to Belgium at 13. I’m sure there was a scout unit I could have joined there but scouting for me was about being with the friends that I had spent every camp out with since I was 5.

As an adult I’ve tried to give back to girl scouting / girl guiding and help enable other young girls to have the same fantastic experiences I had. When I was 18, I worked as a summer camp councilor at the GS summer camp that I used to go to every summer as a kid. My camp name was Narnia. That summer I sang so much, did lots of silly things, and had the best time. When I was living in the UK I volunteered as a girl guide leader for guide units in three different cities (Cambridge, Brighton, and Durham). I achieved my girl guide unit leader qualification. I liked guiding in the UK but not as much as scouting in the US. There seemed to be less singing, less camping, and more religion.

It’s been awhile now since I’ve done any scouting or guiding. Sam, Noggs, and I go camping a lot still. Noggs went camping in a tent for the first time at 16 months. We’re going camping next weekend in Kruger National Park. I also still wear a t-shirt I made with retro guide badges on it. But that’s about it.

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I was recently approached by an old friend from my GS troop in Maryland to ask whether I would help out a daisy scout project. The troop was sending Flat Juliette dolls they made to girl scouts (or ex-girl scouts) around the world and requesting photos and information about the countries the dolls visit. The dolls are named after Juliette Gordon Low who established the first girl scout group in America in 1912. She’s quite a big deal in the history of girl scouting in the US and as a result, the Baden-Powells’ role in scouting seems strangely overlooked.

Anyways so two Flat Juliettes came to Africa in a posted envelope like Flat Stanley.

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And we took the dolls on tour. The Juliettes saw giraffes in Balule Nature Reserve, which is part of Greater Kruger.

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They also met the Black Mambas. The Black Mambas are an all female anti-poaching unit working in Greater Kruger. Anti-poaching is traditionally a very male profession. There are still expectations in some African cultures that women do not belong in the bush or around wild animals. The Black Mambas have made a huge impact on reducing snaring and poaching – they have removed 12 poachers’ camps and 3 bushmeat kitchens, and reduced snaring and poisoning activities by 76% in their area of operation since their deployment in 2013. They are awesome because they are super tough but still feminine. They break societal expectations and do their jobs exceptionally well. The unit is named after a venomous snake but I like to think the name Black Mamba also has a connection to Kill Bill and the bride’s code name. I love Kill Bill and I love the Black Mambas!  I am less enthusiastic about actual black mamba snakes, especially when they are in our house.

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The flat Juliettes saw zebras by our house.

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And they posed by the Drakensberg Mountains which we live near.

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The Juliette dolls have now crawled back into their transportation unit (an envelope) to journey to Brighton, England for the next part of their world tour. Thanks to troop 81612 for letting me be part of scouting again in a little way.