Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sleeping with elephants

Last night around midnight, I was woken by a loud noise that took my sleep hazed mind a little while to figure out. There was an elephant pulling at vegetation right by my tent... or so it sounded. Night time has a way of amplifying sounds. I eased myself out of bed and in the pitch darkness carefully made my way across the wooden floor to the mesh window of my tent; and peered out. There was a lot of cloud cover and so it was difficult to distinguish anything but I tried really hard to focus my eyes on anything that moved. The sounds were incredibly close and then I saw a curved shape of bluish grey followed by another swing round towards me. The elephant was RIGHT by my tent, less than four feet away! I had grabbed my video camera as I had slid from bed... it's broke so I can't record images but it still picks up and records sounds. So I pressed the button and the camera whirred into action. I held my breath as the two curved shapes indicated that the huge head was turning more to face me, alerted by the sound no doubt. I doubt he could have seen me, elephants eyesight is not their strongest sense but I was sure he could hear my breathing and smell my prescence, just the other side of the flimsy canvas. Eating was obviously his priority as the curved shapes swung away and I could hear some plant get ripped from its roots or branch and then the sound of it being pushed into the elephant's mouth and chewed. Were there two elephants? I thought I heard another's breathing and there was a soft low rumble. I strained my eyes but could not see anything other than the dark blue grey colours of the vegetation and the hulk of the elephant before me merging into it. He, or they, stayed for about 10 -15 minutes chomping and pulling on the grasses and bushes by my tent steps. In the morning, I thought, I'll go check out the footprints. Back to bed I went and was woken a few hours later by a huge crash. My first thought as I registered that something had fallen down in my tent, was that the elephant was trying to get in! I held my breath, lying in bed, waiting to hear further destruction noises of canvas being ripped or wooden struts being snapped like twigs. There was nothing but the sound of a rhythmic slow deep breathing, he was asleep... probably on the anthill between my tent and the next; a favoured sleeping spot for a few bull elephants. I tentatively got up and switched on a light and found that one of the framed photographs on an internal divider had fallen down, nothing suspicious; no ripped gaping hole or inwardly leaning structure posts. Phew! I listened to the sound of the elephant breathing as he slept, I'm surprised the crash sound hadn't got him up and curious as to what was going on, come over to investigate. Soon it would be dawn so I stayed awake and watched it rise over the horizon and trees across the lagoon. When it was fully light I could see where the elephant(s) had been. My tent stands on a stilted platform with steps leading up to the door at the side and a deck at the front. If I had been stood at the top of the steps when the elephant had been there last night I could have touched him without having to reach out! And the big fella hadn't left either... I could hear him now flapping his ears, rumbling softly now and again as he had his morning snack of dropped marula fruits from the tree by the tent next to mine; I could just see him, larger than life, through the bushes between. He was BIG. Maybe not as big as they get but from the ground perspective he was big enough! I had estimated that his tusks had been about 6-7 feet high off the ground judging from where I saw them last night in relation to my tent. I hoped he'd walk past my tent, but after feeding for a bit he moved in the other direction, so I couldn't get a photo of him. Speaking to one of the camp managers, on my way to breakfast, there were two elephants wandering around last night, sleeping in several places, visiting others in the camp like the researchers and the camp managers tents. I am SO going to miss all this. I am leaving in a day or two's time. Today or tomorrow could be my last full day at camp, before a seat is found for me on one of the staff flights and I fly away, starting my journey back home.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Wildlife Arist of the Year Competition 2011

Had great news yesterday; I recieved an email from the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation to let me know that my painting 'Tangle of Kelp' has been short-listed in their international competition. It will be exhibited, along with the other finalists, at The Mall Galleries, London June 6-11.

The competition was open worldwide to professional and amateur artists alike and I am extremely happy to have been selected from the hundreds of entries they received.

The winners will be announced on the Preview Evening of the exhibition on June 6th. I hope to be able to attend and meet up with my fellow artist friends who have also been short-listed.

Having a spot of bother!

I composed my next post from the Delta in Word on my little netbook and then tried as I had done on my last entry, to post it to my blog.... for some reason it seems I am unable to. No matter which way round I try to achieve it, the result is the same and I cannot copy and paste it either! Very frustrating! As it is typically long, I didn't fancy typing it all out again, so Kate suggested I post it on their web-blog . So please click on the link if you'd like to read it and go to March in their archive list, where you can find my posts to their blog during my stay.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Hot from the Okavango Delta

I have been in Seba Camp, which is in the north western area of the Okavango Delta, since Friday 4th March. I left England on Tues 1st March, flying overnight to Johannesburg and then getting a transfer flight to Maun, Botswana in the afternoon of the 2nd. From there I was picked up by a driver from Audi camp, located some 12kms outside of Maun, which was where I stayed until the morning of Friday 4th. Audi Camp is a lovely camp catering for campers who bring their own tents, to providing several choices of tent to stay in. I opted for a twin-bedded meru, which was perfect for a couple of nights. Around the camp there were many birds and a pair of long-tailed starlings had a nest in a tree trunk hole with chicks just a paces from my tent. Tree squirrels scurried around and I enjoyed being able to "acclimatise" and chill out there before heading up into the Delta.

The flight to Seba Camp from Maun is about half an hour, flying over the Delta, which is already in flood, the weather was cloudy but very hot and muggy. I had great views from my little window as we flew over vast tracts of land interspersed with massive amounts of water – and the flood has only just started! Apparently the water level hasn't dropped considerably from last year's flood which was big in the amount of water. So they are expecting the flood levels to get higher this year as the new flood adds to the remnants of the last. The Delta has a cycle of high and low flooding over a quite number of years and it is now into a high flood part of that cycle.

Seba Camp is nestled around a lagoon and my beautiful "tent" looks out across it, which does mean that I have the sound of frogs at night. They are very loud, or so I thought the first few nights; I seem to be getting used to them now and find I am falling asleep more readily at night. Also at night an elephant comes to rest, sleep and browse against an "anthill," which is a huge termite mound between my tent and the next. Night time also brings out the fireflies (glow worms) which dance about in the darkness over the lagoon and the reeds around it; I have heard zebra, hyena and hippo not forgetting, of course, the elephant on the nights he visits.

The camp is not fenced so a watchful eye and good bush sense is needed when walking around as it is easy to stumble upon an antelope, monkeys or elephants. Signs of hippo are evident in camp and hyena visit quite regularly too. Just the other evening someone casually mentioned as we sat eating our evening meal (the "back of house" dining area is al fresco) that there was a hyena passing by. I looked up and was amazed just how close the hyena was (probably about 10 paces away) and how it stood looked in on us before casually sauntering off.

During the day I have seen francolins, vervet monkeys and bushbuck around my tent. I say tent… it's more like a canvas chalet. It sits on top of a stilted wooden platform with wooden steps leading up to a door and a deck that spans the width of the tent platform. From here I can sit and look across the lagoon to the Delta beyond, with my binoculars, camera and sketchbook. 'Tis a thoroughly pleasant way to pass some time.

I'm still kinda finding my feet, tuning into the camp routine and the EFA's (Elephants for Africa) work schedule. To give you some idea I am getting up about 5a.m. so that I am ready to go to breakfast between 6-6.30a.m, which is when it gets light. After breakfast I have been out in the Landrover with Kate, Mphoeng or Charlie by about 7a.m or just before. They do a route check every day where they follow either a set or random route around the tracks in the area looking for wild, and tracking the collared, elephants. This usually takes a couple of hours unless they see an elephant and can do a focal. A focal is observing the subject for a given amount of time, Kate's team does 30 mins. During that 30mins they note what the subject is doing every 5 mins such as walking, standing, feeding, dusting. If anything noteworthy happens in between the 5 min they note that too. And if the elephant drops some dung they take a sample from this, when it is safe to do so after the elephant has left. Then back at camp Kate's team start their office work. Lunch is at noon with a game of Bananagrams sometimes happening afterwards before office work etc continues for the afternoon. The evening meal is around 7pm and then everyone retires around 8pm. It gets dark around 7pm so as I am not to walk alone in the dark at the moment I am escorted back to my tent after Dinner.

During the time that Kate and Co are working on Office things I am at my tent or wandering around the camp. I have been sketching and have done a colour rough of the view across the lagoon. I upload my camera photos several times a day to my "netbook" and also write my journal during these quiet times too. I'm not doing too badly on the photos… so far I have over 800 uploaded!

Each Saturday Kate goes the Boma at Abu Camp (which is about 5-10 mins drive away) to take dung samples from the herd and take measurements like height and foot sizes regularly. Sunday is their day off so no need to get up so early then.

I have been snapping away with my camera gathering as much photographic reference as I can and at the same time getting my eye in on the details, colours and feel of the landscapes. For the first week I have concentrated on "settling in" , making sure I know my way around, feeling my way around the camp routines and generally allowing time to figure out what I can and can't do. And also I think it is good to allow time for the camp personnel to adjust to me being part of their day. My sketching has thus far been limited to around camp only, as the opportunity to spend time sketching whilst out is not there at the moment. I am conscious that Kate, Charlie and Mphoeng are all very much at work and have their own time scales for the day. So I hope that I can arrange to spend some hours out with one of the guides a few times so that I can stop the vehicle to sketch and possible paint out in the bush somewhere virtually where I want and for a good amount of time. I have already spent 7 hours out in the bush with the Abu herd and their mahouts. That was a great opportunity for me to observe and spend time sketching each individual elephant to familiarise myself with the body shapes of the varying ages; which range from 18months to 51 years. And as the mahouts are quite happy for me to join them whenever I want, I dare say I shall be spending a lot more time with the Abu elephants.

To say I have been blown away by this place would be an understatement…. It's just awesome in scale and beauty. Every second I'm living in a dream and I fear I'm going to wake up soon and be back in the UK.