After a week of relaxation in Dubai it was time to head to South Africa. We took a flight with Rwandair from Dubai via Mombasa to Kigali, where we had to wait 6 hours to then take a flight to Johannesburg. Everything went smoothly on the flight and we were even lucky enough to see the Kilimanjaro from above, as we flew over Tanzania. We made it to Johannesburg at 22:00 o’clock, quite tired by that time from the long day which had started at 3:30 am for us. I had already booked us a room near the airport to be able to go to bed rightaway, as we had a shuttle picking us up at 6:00 am the next morning to drive us to Hoedspruit, a town near the wilderness reserve.
So all seemed to be going well, until we reached the luggage belt and had one of the traveller’s worst nightmares: Mathias‘ backpack did not arrive!! And to make things worse, they couldn’t even find the tracking number on the system! Oh no, I almost went nuts there and then. The backpack is our home for this year, we had just lost half of our home! The airline staff was also a bit too chilled for me and did not seem to care much. They just said to come back the next evening to see if it arrives with the next flight from Kigali, but we couldn’t! We had a shuttle leaving at 6:00 am the next day. There was nothing we could do though. They said if it turns up, they will send it to the reserve with a courier. So we went to the hotel to get some sleep. The next morning we got picked up as planned and drove 5 hours through the country to Hoedspruit, which is in the Limpopo region near the Kruger Park. As we were driving through the country side I can feel my nerves, which were still on edge, finally come down. Once again, South Africa has the same effect as it always has when I come here. The beautiful nature and its wildlife simply makes me happy inside and let’s me forget all my worries. I looked at Mathias and before I could say a word, he told me he was feeling exactly the same at that moment. I was relieved, as this was the only thing that mattered to me then. I wanted Mathias to understand why I am in love with this country and I am so glad he started to feel the same about it. When we got to Hoedspruit the rangers from the reserve were already there waiting for us with the whole volunteer team that is currently on the program. There are 7 others, which makes it a group of 9 with us. What a change to last time I was here, when we were only 3 volunteers. Before we drove to the reserve, which is another 1 1/2 hours drive away, the team went grocery shopping for the week while we got some time to buy some essentials for Mathias to survive the next few days without his backpack.
By the time we got to the reserve, it was already late afternoon. We all unpacked and then headed straight out on the game drive vehicle to see the sun set over the reserve plains. On the way there we already passed some giraffes. What a beautiful start to our time here. By the time it got dark, Mathias was already under the spell of this place as well. We headed home, dinner was prepared and then we were off to bed, as the next day would start at 5:30 in the morning.
Those of you who know me a bit better know how strongly I feel about Africa. For the others, I will give you some background. Ever since I was a young girl, I think it started when I was around 10 years old, I fell in love with wild cats. I honestly cannot tell you why, it just happened and my whole room was plastered with posters of them ever since. My biggest dream since then was to see them life in their natural habitat and maybe one day have my own reserve (my teenage dream ). It took some time, but when I quit my first job in 2011, I fulfilled myself that dream and came here to a volunteer wilderness reserve in South Africa. It was important to me that I would go to a volunteer program where the focus is on conserving the habitat and its natural balance and take part in it, rather than go to a tourist game reserve where everything they do is not done in the best interest of the animal, but of the tourist. I absolutely loved it here and it was clear I would come back again. In addition, I also met one of my now dearest friends, Kristina, here and through her actually later got introduced to Hector and thus Mathias. So you could say I only know Mathias, because I came here a few years ago. It was therefore a given that I would bring Mathias to this place during our trip, so he can understand why I feel so strongly about South Africa and hopefully share this passion. My gut feeling told me that he would love it here as much as I do, but you never know, right? You can imagine how happy I was, when Mathias told me on our second day here that he is overwhelmed by it all and loves it so much that he wants to extend our stay to 3 weeks, instead of two :). Well, I did not have to think twice about that!
Now it is Sunday and we finished our first week here. So what exactly do we do here? We live in a big house together with the other 7 volunteers. Next to us is the house of the 2 rangers who oversee the program. We have a big garden, barbecue area and pool and the whole place is surrounded by electrical wire fences. Why? Because behind the fence is the open wilderness reserve where you will find a good representation of most South African wild animals, ranging from the smallest to the biggest, including what is known as ‚The big 5′ of South Africa: elephants, buffalos, rhinos, lions and leopards. And to my delight also other wild cats like cheetahs or caracal.
As a matter of fact, we currently have a caracal in the boma in our garden that was taken it to care for it, after it was discovered with a broken leg in the open reserve. It would have died without our help, so we will care for it until it is ready to live and hunt in the open again. Right next to our garden, we also have a buffalo camp where we currently have 3 female buffalos and another sable camp, where we are breeding sables which are endangered as well. One of the best things here though is getting up in the morning, which is usually with the sunrise around 5:30 to 6:00 am and sitting on the porch, listening to the lions roar in the background while you drink your coffee.
I hadn’t told Mathias that when we arrived and he discovered it by himself the first morning we got up and was totally captured by it. Well, it is a massive difference to hear a lion roaring instead of a rooster crowing! From Monday to Saturday morning we then work with the rangers on the reserve. The main objective is to maintain a healthy, balanced habitat as nature intended it and keep or build up a healthy animal population. The reserve the program belongs to is 25 000 hectar large and some of it has been used for cattle or farming in the past. It has therefore been altered from its natural state. In addition, South Africa has a big problem with poachers who break into the reserves and kill animals to sell them or their horns.
This specifically applies to rhinos, elephants or sables for example, but also includes catching any game by putting up wire snares and selling the meat later on. So our job varies from cleaning the reserve from old internal fences or wires, maintainig outer fences, assisting in anti-poaching or snare patrols, maintenance of roads or dams, eradiction of alien plants, assist in prescribed burning, assist in game counts and game capture and transportation when necessary, just to name a few. Some of these activities are done on a regular basis, others just seasonal or when a specific situation occurs.
While you are on your way to the job in the bush, you then come across or drive past the animals. That is, when you are lucky, as the animals obviously don’t come out to see us, rather it is mostly the other way around, they hide away. But the less you disturb them and just let them be, the higher the chances you will see them. And that is what I love about this place. Not knowing what will be around the next corner and if you do see them uncaged and living as they should in their natural habitat, it feels like a reward for the work you have done to maintain their habitat. So during our week here so far, we have been incredibly lucky to already have seen a lot of animals as you can tell from our gallery. Especially day 2 was a big day, with a surprise around the corner one after the other.
First we saw a group of giraffes drinking at a pond, which is always a joy to see them make that effort. Then we saw jakal puppies who could have been only a few days old. Even for our ranger, who has worked here for 8 years already, these were the youngest puppies she had seen in the wild since she has been here. The next corner revealed a group of rhinos, then we drove to a known hippo pond where we found 8 of them and on the way home we past a hyena den with little babies as well. No wonder Mathias said he wanted to stay longer at the end of the day :). And to make things perfect, the airline had emailed me, confirming the backpack had arrived and would be delivered the next day :). What a relief!
The next days passed really quickly. The days were really hot, but dry, and we did quite a bit of work in the open including an anti-poaching bush walk and wire removals. On the way we had some more great sigthings, including a group of over probably 20 vultures hanging around a giraffe carcass. Seen a carcass here is not a sad sight if the animal was killed by normal circumstances, that is in that case by two lions. It is part of the circle of life here. We also saw lots more alive animals.
And even if you have seen the animal already, you never know in which situation you will see them. Just like yesterday, when we came across a group of giraffes again, this time all males. They were practising their fight, which was an amazing sight, I hadn’t seen that last time I was here. They swing their head against each other with such a force that you can hear the bang loud and clearly. They were doing it directly in front of us on the road, so we watched the spectacle for about 10 minutes until they moved into the bush and we could pass. A fantastic sigthing to end the week.
Let’s see what next week will bring. So far we have only heard the lions in the morning, seen elephant tracks on the road and heard about a cheetah sigthing on the radio, but haven’t actually seen them. Hopefully we will get the chance in the next 2 weeks we are here now. But even if we don’t, I just love the peaceful and quiet atmosphere of this place. Being in the middle of nowhere with only wilderness around you and beautiful sunrises, sunsets and even moon nights looking simply stunning every time. This week it was particularly red when it was total lunar eclipse on Wednesday.