Wednesday Wildlife – The Leopard

We saw the leopard slinking low in the desiccated grasses of the Welgevonden Game Reserve in South Africa’s Limpopo region. I almost soiled myself, not out of fear but of excitement. I have been to almost every major game reserve in Southern Africa, yet never to have once spotted this dotty kitty. Until now – this was a huge moment for me and my underpants.

One solitary male on a discrete hunt for food. At first, I celebrated the sighting, treasuring every second that I could watch him sleekly moving through the dry bush. A sighting like this – a once in a lifetime – is too often over in seconds.

Leopard by Thea Beckman 1

But a hunting leopard makes use of lofty vantage points to spy potential prey and, in one fluid movement, our male launched himself up the bole of a tree and took up sentry. Leopards are shy animals and extremely unsociable, which likely explains his unimpressed expression with being watched and photographed.

Leopard by Thea Beckman 3

Legs (and litchis) dangling out all over the place, he remained in suspension for the better part of 20 minutes, while lazily surveying the surrounding bush and staring at us with piercing, tawny eyes. On average, leopards weigh between 60 and 70 kg and can live up to 15 years. What is most exceptional about these cats is that they can drag prey heavier than themselves up a tree, where it can hang safely out of the reach of other predators and scavengers, offering the leopard a consistent source of meat for several days.

Leopard by Thea Beckman 2

The heat, the altitude, and the lack of action took its toll and he let rip an enormous yawn, offering us a glimpse at teeth that could crack your neck like a cheese stick. Seeing this leopard quite honestly constitutes one of the high points of my life and if you’ve seen one, perhaps you’ll understand why. They are truly beautiful, extraordinary animals.

Introducing “Wednesday Wildlife”

I may have shifted my attention to travel but a fascination with wildlife and birdwatching, in particular, remains a stubborn fixture on the landscape of my unorthodox personality. As a part of my new venture, therefore, I shall be posting a weekly picture of an animal or bird that I have taken on one of my adventures. I would like to introduce to you… *appropriately lengthy drumroll*… Wednesday Wildlife! Aren’t I original?

Hold on… I have a better one: Wander Woman’s Wednesday Wildlife! Isn’t the alliteration maddeningly satisfying?

Anyway, enough of that tomfoolery. Before I got around to repurposing this blog to travel, I let rip with the Facebook page, Wander Woman Thea, which I urge you all to like, follow, share, interact with, drool over, and even fondle yourself inappropriately to. What I don’t know can’t hurt me. Over the past few weeks that’s been going, I’ve posted three Wildlife Wednesday features – or, I should say, #WildlifeWednesday – so in an effort to bring you all up to speed, here are those posts.

The Cheetah

Wednesday Wildlife post 1

On a recent trip to Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, I had the incredible life joy of seeing my very first ever cheetah in the wild. We approached this male by foot and got within about 15 meters of him, where I swooned over his kitten-esque antics. Did you know that cheetahs purr? Also, they are the fastest land animal in the world, able to reach speeds of 80 to 120 km/hr in short bursts. I shit you not.

An excerpt from my article for Southern Vines magazine about the reserve:

“Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is a malaria-free, big five private game reserve located three hours’ drive from Cape Town in the Little Karoo. Believed to have originated from the Khoikhoi word for “desert”, the Karoo is a semi-desert region of unique and desolate beauty, marked by tough, low-lying shrubs, hellishly thorned acacia trees, otherworldly succulent plants, rocky koppies, and russet soils.”

Read full article here.

In other words, get your butts to South Africa and come explore our truly gifted natural heritage. Also, because I love to travel and will use any excuse to get out the house, especially to play tour guide to a foreign visitor, get in touch with me if you do make it to our fair shores. Just please don’t axe murder me.

The Owl

Wednesday Wildlife post 2

This absolutely gorgeous creature is a spotted eagle owl, which I photographed in the golden late afternoon light of a game drive that culminated in a glass of chardonnay overlooking a dry river bed.

Sunset chardonnay

There, just in case you didn’t believe life could get THAT good.

Spotted eagle owls are medium-sized, as far as owls go, yet are one of the smallest of the eagle owls. Interestingly, they are a big fan of bathing and so can often be seen around water or on exposed branches or on the ground with spread wings during summer thunderstorms.

Nestled into a thicket of rather nasty Karoo Acacia thorns, this guy glared smugly and somewhat angrily at us, confident that none of us would be stupid enough to breach his/her boma of razor sharp thorns. Of course, human nature is by definition a balance between high intelligence and sublime stupidity. Needless to say, we took our pictures and left the owl alone to its angry vigil.

The Baboons

Wednesday Wildlife post 3

If a picture could speak a thousand words, this one would be a “50 Shades of Grey” novel.

These are Chacma baboons AKA Cape baboons and they are one of the largest of all the monkeys. Indigenous to Southern Africa, they live a highly social life with a defined hierarchy, at the top of which is the alpha male, quite easily one of the most intimidating of all the African animals. Quite honestly, of all the sounds I have heard in the bush, I find the resounding, explosive bark of a baboon to be far more terrifying than a lion’s roar or the hollow clink of an empty wine bottle (and knowing that it’s the last one). An angry male baboon could easily give Chuck Norris a thorough bitch-slapping.

Baboons spend the vast majority of their days foraging and grooming each other as a way of strengthening social ties and, well, just feeling loved.

The Mousebirds

Wednesday Wildlife post 4

These three stooges, who are warming their undercarriage in the mid-morning sun in a coastal bush at De Hoop Nature Reserve (southwestern Cape coast of South Africa), are speckled mousebirds. Mousebirds are gregarious and enjoy the company of other mousebirds, as we can see from the amount of love biting going on in this picture.

Fruits, buds, and berry eaters, mousebirds are named after their appearance (small, greyish bodies and long tails) and foraging behaviour; scurrying around in the bush in search of food. They are the only bird order that is confined entirely to sub-Saharan Africa and – get this – could actually be considered “living fossils” because the 6 species that exist today are the only survivors of a lineage that was massively more diverse in the early Paleogene and Miocene (thanks, Wikipedia).

Another magazine excerpt from an article I wrote about the reserve:

“The seamless confluence of a variety of vegetation biomes and landscapes in De Hoop Nature Reserve has attracted an enormous diversity of birdlife, from iridescent sunbirds and large raptors to swooping aerial birds and gaily coloured flamingos. In a single day, in fact, you could quite easily rack up a bird list of over 100 species, so abundant and varied it is (over 260 species of birds have been recorded here).”

Read full article here.

Wednesday Wildlife with me

That, my friends, is all for today! I will be posting these pictures along with an explanatory blurb every Wednesday at 9am SAST. Of course, if you like my Facebook page, Wander Woman Thea, you can get all of this delicious intellectual goodness delivered right to your feed or inbox. You can also find me on Instagram at @wander_woman_thea.

Happy hump day!

The Enquiring Mind: A Species on the Brink of Extinction

I feel quite precious about my BSc degree. I studied three long hard years to earn that rolled up piece of paper with its gold badge and blue stripe. And I did it all by wading through knee-buckling and mind-bending numbers of equations, published journals, scientific textbooks, physics lab sessions and titration kits. Every day, I was convinced by my subject matter that I was too stupid to study science and would, whilst walking between lectures, enviously glance over at the drama, film and media students playing guitar on the lawns outside the Arts Building on UCT’s Upper Campus. Look at them sipping R6 coffee, letting the fierce Cape Town sun burn off their whiskey hangovers; all of them looking super skinny and wearing clothing that was considered hip in the 60’s.

Typical habitat of the UCT hipster. Social structure: gregarious. Diet: yes. Activities: avoiding trends, political inactivism, bowl haircuts and wearing non-prescription eye-glasses (when it’s hot, without lenses)

Scientists Say: “Sciencey, Sciencey, Science, Science…”

Most of what the layperson knows about science has been hand delivered to them by the media. By the very people that wore non-prescription eye-glasses at university and smoked pipes (the Sherlock Holmes variety), while plucking thoughtfully at the braces redundantly holding their excessively tight-fitting skinny jeans up. I am mercifully stereotyping here, I know that. So let’s get serious… the headlines you read are almost always written by people who studied sociology, psychology, literature, journalism, film and media. Not the people that spent three, four, six or more years becoming trained in the ways of rigorous scientific study and reporting. This isn’t necessarily a BAD thing…

ANYONE can understand science. Science shouldn’t BE this intangible and untouchable fortress of knowledge that only the highly educated elite are allowed to enter. Science is the study of all the observable, measurable and physical things around us. It explains why the sky is blue, how diamonds are made, where babies come from and what the aurora borealis is. All it really takes to become a practitioner of science is an enquiring mind and a strict adherence to the scientific method, which is essentially the set of rules governing how you go about proving something… anything, really.

Now the two points I have made above may seem to stand in stark contrast with each other. Surely, if we should all actively try to understand and engage with science, the media should be more than encouraged to report on it. But this is actually where the problem arises. It’s in the delivery of messages that are geared to impress, shock, attention-grab and intimidate. Large black-and-white statistics that no one REALLY understands, but sound impressive anyway, thrust their way visually at us from news and magazine stands. A thumb-sucked example would be:

72% of ALL South Africans Have Herpes!

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember answering any national surveys about my HPV-status, which immediately makes that statistic redundant. If you haven’t tested every single South African, then you can’t say that 72% of ALL South Africans have The Herp. You may go as far as saying that surveys of 1,000 university students reveal that the vast majority are clearly showing no discrimination in who they play tonsil hockey with.

You have to be so careful when publishing the results of controlled scientific trials, studies and research. More importantly, YOU – the reader – have to be so careful when reading what the media has to say about these studies. In an effort to craft headlines that sell, the media takes the results of years of careful measurement and data analysis and interprets them in a way that will sell their product. There are two fundamental problems with this:

1. The true findings of the scientific study and their greater application to our knowledge base is almost always lost in translation

2. It creates a massive divide between the layperson and the entire discipline of science.

Reporters throw around big, impressive and authoritative words and phrases, such as “results of a scientific study”, “scientists say”, “scientists prove”, “according to scientific evidence”, etc. And the result is that our enquiring minds have been left on the very brink of extinction.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

It’s such a pity that people feel so disconnected from science and from an understanding of the world around us. What is even more of a pity is that we just accept the statistical fodder thrust at us. “Whoa! I’d better start eating more avocados! According to the health section in the You Magazine, it reduces varicose veins by 69%!

Side note: I’m totally thumb-sucking here, but in the past, You Magazine has used the health section to provide some wild-sounding statistics relating to food and nutrition. They seem to have cleaned up their act as far as science reporting is concerned.

By the way, I ONLY buy You Magazine for the crossword puzzles!

…and maybe to collect pictures of Justin Bieber. What?

Do yourself a favour. The next time someone says: “According to scientists” or “Scientists say” ask them: “Oh? In which peer-reviewed journal was that published? And what methodology was followed when they tested the efficacy of avocado in reducing the appearance of varicose veins?”

Be a little more critical of the ‘sciencey’ information people, companies and brand names use to convince you to subscribe to their beliefs, products or services. Find out the facts for yourself. Ask why? How? Revive your enquiring mind! Bring it screaming back from the edge of the gaping chasm of blind acceptance. Not only will it make you sound incredibly intelligent, but you will actually BE more intelligent.

Although that may not go down well with your hipster friends.

Newton’s Laws of Motion and the Pedestrians of Woodstock Main Road

Science education in this country is appalling. Clearly, from the lay person’s complete contempt for the fundamental work of Sir Isaac Newton, mechanical physicist extraordinaire. But before I drop any bigger and more incomprehensible words like ‘incomprehensible,’ let’s shut our eyes and take a visual journey down Woodstock Main Road.

You may want to open them again. You know, to read on…

Woodstock Main Road: A Visual Journey Through an Historic Suburb

Woodstock Main Road is a hubbub of activity. Furniture stores (of the used variety), clothing stores (of the hand-me-down variety), shoe shops (of the sweat-shop produced variety) and antique shops (of the I-got-screwed-in-my-grandmother’s-will variety) line both sides of this well-travelled route through one of Cape Town’s most historic suburbs. Woodstock is a fantastic place to live, if, of course, the lock on your gate on your 3-metre high industrial steel electrified fence is working. It has a real vibrancy about it, with its red brick-faced buildings, colourful graffiti, the pervasive smell of KFC, open air fruit and vegetable stands, incessant hooting and blood curdling cries of Caaype Teeeeeaaaawwwn!! If Cape Town was a flesh-and-blood organ, Woodstock Main Road would be a pulsating artery complete with white and black blood cells.

As with any congested roadway in Cape Town, your average code B licensed vehicle driver has quite a challenge on his or her hands. Taxis regularly risk people’s lives getting them to and from work every day, while bus drivers exploit the incredible size of their vehicles and low wage rage to literally intimidate other cars off the road. But it’s not the irresponsible bus drivers that make me want to pull a 12-guage shot gun out from under my car seat. It’s not the taxi drivers that make me wish I could explode their engines with bolts of pure energy from my eyes (okay, maybe a little…)

No. It’s the pedestrians of Woodstock Main Road and their sheer lack of respect for Newton’s Three Laws of Motion that really make me homicidal. Try it. I dare you. Try and drive the length of Woodstock Main Road without having at least three cardiac arrests. People… just… walk. They don’t care. They just walk across the road without looking. There have been at least 27 occasions that I have wanted to slam my foot down (oops officer, sorry, wrong pedal!) and mow down a pedestrian who, in a demonstration of complete faith reminiscent of Indiana Jones walking across that invisible bridge in The Last Crusade, just crosses the road without looking. And they don’t walk… they stroll. They epitomize the meaning of the word ‘perambulate’:

“Let’s take a leisurely perambulation across this busy road, Geraldine.”

“Why yes Ashwell, I think I could do with a leisurely perambulation across this busy road after that rather rich lunch of vis en slap tjips!”

South Africa: A Country Crying Out for Physics Education

As I said, there have been at least 27 occasions on which I’ve wanted to make chunky kibbles out of the special breed of idiot that perambulates across Woodstock Main Road. But then, on the 28th occasion, or 29th (who’s counting?), I came to a blinding realisation… a revelation of neutron star gravity.

Science education in this country sucks. Clearly.

These people know NOTHING of Newton’s Three Laws of Motion. Of course! Why didn’t I see this before? If they had any idea what a 1,000 kg body travelling at 60km/hr was capable of doing to an essentially stationary 80 kg body, they would probably look both ways before illegally strolling across the road. They would actually probably look left and then right AND THEN LEFT AGAIN, if they knew what kind of party those opposing forces would throw right there in the middle of the road. There would be doef-doef music. And red streamers.

So, in order to remedy this situation and to allow minibus taxis to regain the title of “Most Hateful Moving Object on the Road,” I have decided to explain to Cape Town exactly what Newton’s Three Laws of Motion are in a way that you all will most definitely understand.

Newton’s Three Laws of Motion Demystified

The Surprisingly Sexy Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton was a physicist who pioneered the field of mechanical physics. He took the whole idea of motion, of movement, and put words and equations to it. And he did this by coming up with three iron-clad rules: three immutable laws that would forevermore govern motion, not just on this planet, but (insofar as we can tell) in the entire Universe. Wherever you are in the world, or indeed the galaxy, you can be sure that these rules will apply to you. If you don’t believe me, run in front of a bus in Italy. Repeat on Jupiter.

Sucks every time.

Newton’s First Law:

[In fancy speak: Every object continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless compelled to change that state by external forces acted upon it.]

In South African English: If I’m travelling down Woodstock Main road at a constant speed, I will continue to do so unless a taxi T-bones me (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Series of Scientific Diagrams Demonstrating Newton’s First Law of Motion

Newton’s Second Law:

[In fancy speak: The acceleration of a body (a) is directly proportional to the net force (F) acting on it and inversely proportional to the mass (m) of the body. I.e. F = m.a]

In South African English: The force (F) my car would exert upon you, the pedestrian, can be calculated by multiplying the mass of my car by my acceleration. Conversely, the acceleration of your body through the air when I hit you with my car can be calculated by dividing the force my car exerts on you by your mass (see image 2).

In plainer South African English: My car would bliksem you to pieces, broo!

Fig. 2: Series of Scientific Diagrams Demonstrating Newton’s Second Law of Motion

Newton’s Third Law

[In fancy speak: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.]

In South African English: If I hit you with my car, you will exert a force on my car just as my car would exert a force on you. But, according to Newton’s Second Law of Motion, my car would win (refer to image 2).

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

These are the three immutable laws of physical motion. Remember them well the next time you think a belligerent stare will be sufficient to slow down my car. Remember that the next time you make me burn rubber or swerve into oncoming traffic to avoid manslaughter charges.

Please people, let’s give the minibus taxi back its rightful title as “Most Hateful Moving Object on the Road” and look both ways next time you leisurely perambulate across a busy road.