Tawani & Regina's Diary

July 19th, 2023

Dear Diary,

In life we always have good and bad times. Usually, the good times make us glad we are here and helps us fight through the bad times when they come. This entry is about a day where everything that could go wrong, most certainly did. Waring: You may get triggered.

Before I we get comfortable around this campfire where I will tell my horror tale, let me give you some background. I had to apply for a Romanian visa while in Hungary, as my Hungarian residence permit expired the same week I finished my studies. There were some complications with my application that caused a delay with the processing of my visa, pushing my start date at my internship back with a week. I learned my lesson and was determined to not repeat the same mistakes. I started emailing the Hungarian consular in Romania 2 months in advance. After a month and a half of back and forth emails, struggles with finding a timely online appointment, a few more emails, booking-system errors, more emails (you get the picture), I finally receive an email from the consular stating that there was an opening, and they booked the spot for me. I even had two whole days to plan the trip. The stress of the booking was finally over.

We began planning my trip. Please keep in mind that I do not have my own transportation and getting from more rural areas, such as Zabola, to a main city using public transportation, can only be described a complex math problem (I only had standard math in high school). After a couple of hours spent searching for schedules, calling around for help, and planning, we had a bus scheduled from Covasna to Brasov at 5:45, a lift to the bus stop at 5:30, a train from Brasov to Bucharest, a print shop 2 minutes from the train station where I can get passport photos (an important part of the visa application process), and the uber app where I can book easy transportation to get me to the consular’s office with 20 minutes to spare. This was the plan. The plan was set. The plan was flawless.

The plan went up in smoke – figuratively, of course. The bus schedule was outdated, the bus stop was not pinned on google maps, so obviously I waited at the wrong spot, and after missing a bus at 6:00, my only option, had I stuck with the now-failing bus plan, would have been to wait until 10:00 for the next bus. I would miss my appointment by a lot. I called Levente in a panic. He picked me up at 7:00 while on his way to drop his wife off at the Sfantu Gheorghe train station and bus options to Brasov form there are much easier to come by. The false sense of a plan working out, crept back. We arrive, and I run to the bus stop. A man who does not speak a drop of English, mimes me in a direction of a bus location. I do some more math on bus arrival times versus train departure times and realize that the bus will be too slow. The only option left was to pay for a taxi. I jump into the nearest one, ask how much it will cost – not that it matters, I need to pay anyway - and off we go.

I take a deep sigh of relief as I step onto the last train that could get me to Bucharest in time for this appointment. Nothing else could go wrong from here, I’m sure of it. At the consular’s office all goes smoothly. So smoothly, in fact, that they immediately give me the visa I would originally waited 15 for. Immensely thankful and incredibly relieved that this two-month long problem is solved and over, I make my way back to the Bucharest train station. Ticket at hand, I jump on the train that will get me to Brasov before the last bus to Covasna that departs at 20:00. Ah, relaxation and calm sets in as the stress of the day starts to lift off my shoulder.

The day, however, decides that is has not had enough fun messing with me yet. I arrive in Brasov and start to look for the bus. I ask around but no one speaks English except for another few lost internationals. I finally show a bus driver the schedule on my phone. His response hits me hard! “The last bus was at 18:00, the next is only tomorrow morning.” Deceived by the online schedule yet again. I am defeated. Exasperated, I call our usual taxi driver, Florin, who had been driving to and from Bucharest with a car full of people since 2am in the morning. He, too, is defeated, tired, and annoyed that I called him this late. Still, he graciously comes to pick me up. We drive in silence. The road seems endless for the both of us. The day has won and kicked us while we were on the floor. My only solace: I have my visa! Now I get to spend the remainder of my two weeks at Conservation Transylvania in my happy place: the wild. Hooray!

My wish for you is that the good days are plenty and the bad things come in small, digestible parts. When the bad things start piling up, go find the good things in the cracks and let the light be the thing you focus on. Remember to be kind to yourself and to stay wild.

See you next time.

July 9th, 2023

Dear Diary,

It has been a fun week for us. We went to see some bears on Monday and on Tuesday we did a 27-kilometre hike through the woods. We drank from the springs, ate the wild strawberries, harvested some mushrooms, learned which ones are poisonous, and how to cook the ones that are safe to eat. We got to see the little hut at the top of the mountain not far away. This brought back some of my fondest memories of hiking in the Knysna forests of South Africa. The Outeniqua is one of the most difficult trails in that area, but the views are breathtaking, the natural area is lush, the water from the streams are safe to drink and delicious, and the absence of city noise is replaced by chirping birds, distant movements of something big, and wind rustling through the leaves can calm any busy soul.

The shelters in these Transylvanian mountains can be rented by hikers that are inclined to be closer to nature without giving up all the comforts. There is no running water (except for the little stream close by), no electricity, and no cell phone reception but there are 9 comfy beds and a roof overhead.

On Wednesday we were asked to help with a birthday event where more than HUNDRED 18-year-olds would come together to celebrate the coming of age of the Roychowdhury’s eldest daughter, Emma. It was a weekend filled with fun activities. Regina and I oversaw the scavenger hunt that took place on Friday. Most of the hunt was already planned by Zoltán, so we did not have to work too hard to make the event a success. Our duties included some minor logistical changes for the hunt, the printing of the rules, getting the packages ready for the 10 participating teams of ten people each, hiding the clues in sneaky places, explaining the rules and details of the event with the other helpers, and guiding the scavengers in the right direction as well as handing them some of the clues. From rowing across the lake to get a password that will grant a clue, to deciphering riddles and anagrams, and even pulling horse carriages. It was a wonderful opportunity for these young people to mingle across borders and enjoy the beauty of Zabola Estate.

A unique event for a unique place and some fun additional duties for Regina and me during our internship. After all, learning how to get people excited to be in nature and involved in its protection, is an important part of being a wildlife manager and conservationist.

Until next week, be kind and stay wild.

May 29th, 2023

Dear diary,

There has been a few notable events since last I wrote. Regina and I have ben spending our time at the Estate finding bird nests, watching and marking down the various species feeding habits – the intervals at which the parents feed the chicks, looking for new bird species that are starting to arrive, and taking pictures for a booklet we are putting together for future volunteers. Along with this we felt it would be fun knowing more about the other species that can be found at the estate, in the woods. And so, we started collecting photos and information on various plant species, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and more. We have been out looking for and catching frogs, newts, and snakes, all the while keeping an eye on our bird species, their nests, and the baby birds, most of which are about the size of their parents at this stage. It is interesting to see the adults feeding the juveniles that are the same size as they are while the young take their time to learn to properly fly and to hunt for food themselves.

There was one last big presentation that we all had to do. This one was not like the others. We were all sent to separate classrooms, and we had to deliver an hour-long presentation each (Regina had to do two back to back). We spoke about South Africa and the wildlife that can be found there, the different climes and biomes, the issues with poaching, our studies in Hungary, and how we ended up in Romania. Though few asked questions were asked and few were answered when I asked, everyone seemed genuinely interested in the presentations and after I finished my presentation, one of the teachers that listened to my presentation, gave me a small vile of Norwegian pine (Picea abies) essence that he had extracted himself. This was by far one of the most thoughtful ‘thank you’ gifts I have received for a public speech. If you do not know what this pine spells like, you can rub the needles of this tree (found in the forests of Transylvania, among other places) between your fingers, and the pine needles will give off a wonderful smell.

Though I have personally learnt a tremendous amount about conservation and some of the various species that can be found in this area, one of the most important thing I have learned was to network. The more people you know in conservation the more knowledge can be gained toward your future in conservation. For instance, I met Gregor Roy-Chowdhury at an event in Budapest in 2022 where he and his wife invited me to this marvellous opportunity of working for Conservation Transylvania. Since being here I have been introduced to multiple conservationists and visionaries such as Peter Bennet (executive director of Rainforest Concern), Nat Page (president of Fundatia ADEPT), and Dr. John Akeroyd (botanist and key adviser at Fundatia ADEPT), just to name a few, all of whom create opportunities for more people to get involved in nature conservation. Dr. Akeroyd also agreed to help us with the correct identification of the plant species that we will be adding to the booklet, so we know the information will be accurate.

It has been an eventful few weeks with many wonderful memories and an even wider network of professionals to reach out to for future projects.

Until next time, stay kind and be wild.

May 4th, 2023

Dear diary,

Last week we celebrated green week in Transylvania. This meant Regina and I had to deliver 3 presentations at three different schools to varied aged groups in a matter of 5 days. What you should know is that we were unaware of the fact that we would be doing even 2 until about 3 weeks prior. Now, 3 weeks sounds like a lot, but for 2 “lazy perfectionist” introverts it was not enough time to mentally prepare delivering a 30-minute (minimum) presentation on our lives as well as our experience thus far with Conservation Transylvania. We learned more about the number of presentations we will be doing, the length it needs to be, the age groups, and information that would be good for us to share bit-by-bit, day-by-day. We were given guidelines, though Regina works best with all the specifics at hand and seeing as she was the one that needed to do the talking during the presentation, the pressure was mainly on her.

I build this story’s intensity so you can feel the angst Regina felt. You see, she partially grew up in South Africa and went to an American school where she was taught in English. She also did her bachelor’s degree in English. All this means that, although she is a Hungarian, she has no formal training in Hungarian nor has she ever done a presentation in this language. Mind you, this presentation had to include MY life stories (most of which she heard for the first time), her life stories, AND various animal species we only knew the English common names of. We spent hours going back in time looking for photos that either we took or that were taken of us, sifting thorough the important stories we want to tell, and Googling translations. We had to look for personal photos of the cities we lived in, the activities we did, the animals we saw, etcetera. We wanted the presentation to consist of personal photos and not downloaded ones from the internet.

Before the presentations started, I had to greet the class and introduce myself in Hungarian after which Regina took over and did the hard work. I merely clicked the right arrow on the keyboard to bring up the next slide whenever she would give me The Nod. As I am still learning Hungarian and I do not understand full sentences yet, I had to wait for The Nod to be sure I was doing my job correctly. Listening to a presentation in a language you do not know and having to pay full attention to it – even more attention than you would have paid during a presentation done in a language you do understand – was an interesting experience. Regina, though nervous, did a fantastic job at keeping everyone engaged and interested, while successfully hiding her nervousness. By the time we had to deliver the third presentation she was comfortably telling more stories than originally scripted, joking and laughing with the audience. This was great practise for her future, as she will be doing her master’s degree in Hungarian.

This was a wonderful opportunity for us to reminisce about our past and current wildlife experiences, all the while teaching younger minds how beautiful, fun, and incredibly important wildlife truly is.

Until next time, be kind and stay wild.

April 17th, 2023

Dear Diary,

Spring at Zabola estate truly is a wonder. Snow fell with the arrival of my colleague and friend, Regina in April. This is the second time someone that grew up in South Africa, traveling from Hungary to Zabola Estate for an internship, brings a snowstorm with them. Just before my arrival in Romania at the beginning of February (as a South African traveling from Hungary for my internship) there was a snowfall that left the estate and its mountains covered with sparkling, white blankets of snow. Regina and I moved into a little house in the village and our shortcut to the estate had our road crossing with a fox on her very first day. It was a marvellous moment.

Since Regina’s arrival we have started collecting data on the nesting birds around the estate. She was thrown into the deep end with bird identification but has been doing a fantastic job of catching up. After spending hours looking for nests, we finally came across a couple of Lesser-spotted woodpeckers nesting high up in a tree and so the data capturing officially commenced. We will be spending the following weeks finding as many nests as we can and once the young have hatched, we will start collecting information on the feeding habits of these various bird species that are nesting in the area.

Regina and I were graciously invited to a black-tie event hosted by the Roy-Chowdhury family; and what an event it was! We met wonderful people doing amazing things in their respective fields from all over the world. One of the most memorable moments was when the guests were informed that they wouldn’t be seated with their partners. The female guests’ names were put in a bowl and each gentleman had to draw a name. The two were paired to be seated together for dinner. By the end of the night everyone were friends with no awkward wallflower situations as we all danced and celebrated Easter together.

Here in Transylvania, they celebrated Easter twice. How fun is that?! We celebrated Easter with the Catholics from the 7th until the 10th of April and with the Orthodox from the 14th until the 17th of April. South Africans celebrate Easter the same time as the Catholics and Protestants and so it was an interesting experience to celebrate it two weeks in a row. I hope you all enjoyed a wonderful and blessed Easter surrounded by friends and family.

Until next time, be kind and stay wild.

March 24th, 2023

Dear diary,

I have been in Zabola for one and a half months and have been enjoying experiences of more than just the local hospitality, events, and wildlife, I have also had the privilege of learning more about the culture, traditions, and celebrations within Transylvania.

On the 15th of March’s the Hungarian Szeklers of Romania commemorate Hungarian Revolution Day as part of their heritage.

Historically, the 1683 “Battle of Vienna” showed the defeat of the Ottomans, after which the Habsburg monarchy slowly started to take power over Transylvania. They lost their control after the end of the Rákóczi’s “War for Independence” in 1711. Within the Habsburg Empire, Transylvania was considered part of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Presently there are just about 1 million ethnic Hungarians that live in Romania, most are in the Transylvanian region. After the end of communism in 1989, the Hungarians in Romania have celebrated the 1848 revolution against the Habsburg empire by holding parades in Transylvania on the 15th of March every year. Because of its diverse history the Transylvanian people have varied ethnicities, linguistics, cultures, and religions. With the area having been shared among Hungarian nobility, German burghers, and seats of the Székelys, between 1437 and 1848, there is much history to note and be celebrated.

It is always an honour to witness the celebration of different cultures from all over the world. The 15th of March Parade was an experience I will not soon forget and I look forward to learning more of the history and traditions of the various ethnic groups within Romania.

Be kind and stay wild.

March 14th, 2023

Herewith follows the events of my 5th week with Conservation Transylvania.

In the past I have volunteered at an NGO working on ocean conservation and I had to learn to identify various oceanic species on a daily basis. These included not only fish species that looked very similar to one another, but also different types of algae, mollusks, and many, many more. This did not compare to identifying birds and bird calls. What a task! I know I have said it before, but this is to point out how serious I was about my struggles with bird identification *laughs nervously*. I am improving and it is getting easier, however, so all hope is not lost.

This week, along with seeing many bears, roe deer, crows, finches, magpies, ducks (see I’m learning), spiders and butterflies, I also made friends with a few of the Count Mikes’ horses. We have been looking out for an injured bear so we can contact a vet to look at it after we have been spotting it in the same place every day for about 6 consecutive days. The bear’s leg was caught in a snare that left a deep gash in his left front paw, leading to difficulties in walking around in search for food. He is one of the big bosses, so at least when he arrives in an area, the other bears move away quickly. This has kept him safe and alive. Hopefully we will be able to help him soon.

As most of you know, Wednesday was women’s day, and I was informed that this day is taken pretty seriously in Romania. There will be at least one person giving you flowers, and in my case one of my friends gave me a potted orchid plant and a cactus (because I really like cacti), and on my walk to work, I was handed a potted primrose plant by the local police. It was a lovely gesture and brightened up the day before it even truly began. My hope is that this day will remind us to treat one another with respect and kindness every day of the year. Not just on a singled-out day.

On a lighter note, we walked to the hides for bear feeding for the first time (instead of taking the car most of the way), and it was a lovely change. You see more, hear more, and experience more. I, for instance, got the fright of my life. While we were walking up the mountain, an aircraft passed overhead and as we tried to spot it in the sky, a bear that was close behind us between the trees got startled by the loud noise the aircraft made, grunted loudly, and ran off hastily. I, however, was unaware of the bear behind us as I had not been paying enough attention to my surroundings while walking, and leaped back in a moment of undirected fear, much to the amusement of my walking buddy and ranger, Laci.

Then there was the hunter’s ball, where I was invited to be a side-line photographer (as I am no professional) to experience some fantastic French-horn tunes. This is how hunters celebrate game.They have a special horn signal for every momentum of the hunt. After a successfull hunt the hunters gather around the prize to celebrate its life and sacrifice and to honour it as it moves into the hereafter. This is a tradition in some European hunting communities that is taken very seriously and is passed down from generation to generation. It was an evening of new experiences, live music, dancing, and great food, and I managed to take hundreds of photos that are not usable, but that taught me some new things about photographing people at lavish events. Overall, a lovely evening, even though I am not a hunter myself.

Well, that is it for this week’s happenings. I look forward to seeing you all again next week. Until then, be kind and stay wild.

March 8th, 2023

Dear diary,

During my 3rd and 4th weeks with Conservation Transylvania, Levente and I tried catching one of the lynxes in the area on camera. Though we were able to gather a few images and a video or two of some of the lynxes on a trail camera, they were a bit too evasive to get a good, professional close-up of one of them. They taunted us with their markings and tracks, but they stayed out of sight, as is the nature of a lynx. During the cold month of February they move around more than usual as it is their mating season and they need to find a partner. I felt I made it more difficult for us to find one as my snow-walking is quite loud – not something you want when following a shy animal with fantastic hearing and sight. Our efforts have been unsuccessful thus far. Luckily there are other animals that are easier to find.

On one of the days, I stayed in the photographer’s hideout for a couple of hours and saw 10 bears, a wild boar, and many finches eating at the site. One of the bears came so close to the hideout that it was about a meter away from me. I am not sure if he got a fright from seeing me or himself, but he stumbled back hastily. We also spotted a rare woodpecker, 6 roe deer, an eagle, and signs of a badger. We will start looking for the badger after the markings of the lynxes movements are no longer visible.

On another day I was shown around the woods and we used off road pathways and walked on unmarked trails. I was then asked to point in the direction of the car we drove up in and I had to guess the direction as I was not paying enough attention to my surroundings and keeping the location of the car in the back of my mind as we walked. I still have so much to master.

Along with learning about the woods and wetland area, the bears, lynxes, wildcats, roe deer, red deer, wild boar, foxes, and beavers, I must also learn to identify bird species and their calls. This has proven to be one of the most difficult things I have had to do here. When I see a bird, I look for it in the bird identification book where I then find out there are more than one subspecies and that I did not look close enough to find out exactly which one it was, by this time the bird has flown away, and I am back to square one. When I hear a bird call, I try to look it up, but birds have conversations that consist of different pitches, notes, phrases, speeds, and volumes, making it increasingly difficult to “quickly” match the bird call with the bird. I have been trying to educate myself, but I realised this is a much easier task when you consult a professional.

On a more personal note, now that winter is over there is an increase in events I can attend where I can meet more of the locals and lear