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Stepping out of the aircraft the heat hit me. ‘This is Africa’ I thought — a phrase I would soon come to know very well indeed.
Ever since I was little I had dreamed of going to Africa (cheesy, I know). Having been practically brought up inside Colchester Zoo, I’d seen all the animals a hundred times and even heard the lion roaring from my bedroom window. However, as I grew up, observing them in captivity no longer felt quite right. Over the years I began to question the role of Zoos and Wildlife Parks in conservation. Ultimately, Colchester Zoo fuelled my life-long love of wildlife, but can we ever justify keeping animals in captivity? Whilst this is most definitely a debate to be had another time, all I shall say is that when I learnt Colchester Zoo’s charity, Action for the Wild, was funding the restoration of a cattle farm into a nature reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, I had to go. Several years forward and I had finally passed the golden age of 18. I was ready to become a 1-month summer intern on UmPhafa Private Nature Reserve.
My first challenge after arriving in South Africa was to find the other interns among the chaos of Durban arrivals lounge. Luckily, I’d already met up with two of them on the flight out, and after a couple of hours wait the team was set and ready to go. Blasting out the tunes and having a sing-along during the 4-hour minibus journey to the reserve established firm friendships, with the singing soon becoming a common occurrence whenever we entered a moving vehicle. Exhausted, we arrived at the reserve to an incredible sunset and a good old (not so African) curry rustled up by the three interns already there. This brought our numbers up to 11 and marked the start of my Amazing African Adventure.
06.30 the alarm goes off. 06.35 I jump out of bed like a madwoman. 06.36 I realise I have ages to get ready and slow down to a slug-like pace. 06.40 I try to shower but the pipes are frozen. 07.25 I am nowhere near ready and the frantic dash around the house begins. 07.30 I am clad in a woolly hat, gloves, 3 layers and have sunglasses, sun cream, sunhat and enough water to flood a small village packed in my rucksack. This was the morning routine for the next month. It wasn’t quite the Africa I had expected. Where was the dust, heat and sweat? Apparently, it was hidden away and, like an unsociable teenager, only ready to bare its face to the world after 10.00. I had forgotten. I had come to South Africa in the winter. T.I.A. (W). This is Africa (in Winter).
By 10.00 each day I was down to just trousers and a t-shirt. A morning spent out in the bush is enough to warm even the most cold-blooded of people. Most of the tasks were fairly physically demanding, and as I hacked through invasive Prickly Pear, got tangled amongst unruly acacia or removed cattle fencing, I felt grateful to be exercising my limbs rather than the deep regions of my brain (which Cambridge has a habit of overworking...) Almost every day we would do something new: road maintenance, encroachment control, invasive species removal, tick surveys, camera and mammal trap setting, game counts, animal tracking, patrols, etc. etc. the list goes on. Being bored was not an option. I learnt about the importance of everything we did from a conservation perspective. Conservation does not just mean cuddling cute baby orangutans in Borneo or bottle feeding orphaned elephants in Thailand. It means habitat management, hard work and making tough decisions. The toughest decision of all came the day we attempted to rescue Eddie the giraffe.
In South Africa animals are the property of the landowner. As a result, the reserve is enclosed by a fence to prevent animals from entering neighbouring land where they can be legally shot by the property holder. For several months Eddie had been stuck outside the reserve, after breaking through this fence. He could often be seen at the boundary between the community land and UmPhafa, almost as though he was waiting to be let back in. However, each of the 9 previous rescue missions had failed. Perhaps it would be 10th time lucky…
On one sunny Monday morning, we took down part of the fence and tried to encourage him to walk back onto UmPhafa. Half an hour passed. 40 minutes. An hour. He walked close to the gap but not through it. We didn’t know what to do. As an inquisitive water buck kept coming closer and closer and almost knocked himself out charging into the (no longer) electric fence, we needed a new strategy. One group was dispatched to climb the fence further along, while the other walked through the gap. From opposite directions, the ‘fence climbers’ and ‘gap goers’ began to circle behind Eddie to try and round him up towards the fence. All was going well, we were going to do it! Until… bam.
Like a strike of lightning had awoken his sense of fear, Eddie turned around and bolted. And yes, I do mean bolted. Giraffes might not look capable of great speed with their gangly legs, but do not be fooled. We quickly dashed back through the hole to show Eddie we had no intention of cornering him and miraculously he slowed down. A few minutes later and Eddie had resumed his position near, but not quite near enough, the hole in the fence. All romantic thoughts of singing ‘I’m coming home, I’m coming home, tell the world I’m coming home’ upon his return to the reserve abruptly vanished. It seemed that Eddie would not be coming home today. Francois – the intern coordinator – was left on giraffe watch while the rest of us, somewhat dejectedly, completed some road maintenance.
By 16.00 Eddie had still not returned to UmPhafa and the decision was made to repair the fence and abort the rescue mission, yet again. What will become of Eddie I do not know for certain, and it seems that nobody does. Conservation is challenging and does not always work out as planned, but we do our best in the most difficult situations. This is a teaching I shall carry with me throughout the rest of my conservation career.
However, life on UmPhafa wasn’t all despair and misfortune. A more cheery lesson learnt was to ‘work hard, play hard’ - likewise the motto of many a Cambridge student. Friday evenings were reserved for the pub and Saturday evenings for a braai, which is, in brief, a barbeque, but in actual fact a whole lot more. There was no dashing round to Tesco to buy a disposable barbecue and some dodgy horse filled burger because you forgot the family were visiting that evening. Oh no. The entire Saturday was organised around the braai. T.I.A.
In the morning, we cut down dead trees to collect firewood, followed by a trip to the local meat store. Whilst the others bought locally sourced antelope, warthog, crocodile and all manner of exotic items, I enquired about the possibility of purchasing something a little less meaty and was, once again, reminded that T.I.A. ‘Vegetarian’ is not in the South African dictionary.
After eventually sourcing some rather dubious veggie burgers it was back to the reserve for some downtime before the evening activities commenced. The first step was to build a LARGE fire – emphasis on the large. We then chatted and socialised around the fire waiting for coals to form. And wait we did. Typical South African braais seem to involve more talking than eating, which is great unless you’re used to eating dinner at 17.45 sharp. Eventually, at 21.00 dinner was served. What I took to be strange mashed potato turned out to be pap – a maize-based food – and my attempt to eat corn on the cob elegantly did not go to plan. Nonetheless, the first braai was an overall success, and we proceeded to have one every Saturday for the remainder of the internship.
On reflection, it would seem that as interns we evolved many habits during our time on the reserve, alongside the weekly braais and pub trips. For example, the post-lunch nap became a must (working outside 07.30 - 12.00 was hard work!) and trying to identify animal tracks and faeces wherever we went soon became second nature. I knew that I would miss being outside all day, every day and that re-adjusting to my more mundane UK existence would be a challenge. Being driven along dirt tracks in the back of a truck with no seatbelts, at break-neck speed, would be replaced with driving my Vauxhall Corsa carefully along well-maintained tarmac roads. Being able to play ‘eye-spy’ with amazing African wildlife in the vicinity, would be replaced with ‘spot the Feral Pigeon’ in Cambridge city centre. And waking up every morning to the hustle and bustle of a lively dormitory of people would be replaced with the screeching of my alarm clock in a silent bedroom. I did not want to leave Africa.
However, leave I did. One month after my arrival, I found myself back at Durban airport. Although this time I was surrounded by close friends, rather than the distant strangers I’d met just a month previously. As we said goodbye to Africa and each other, I realised that I’d achieved so much more than I thought possible during my internship. Not only did I learn about conservation, but another culture and way of life, and I met some incredible people along the way.