John Bradfield - African Bushveld Conservation in South Africa
I decided to choose Projects Abroad as I wanted to do something different for my gap year rather than just travel. I decided to volunteer in South Africa on the African Bushveld Conservation project as it was something I had never experienced and I have a great interest in wildlife.
Arriving to South Africa
After a flight to Johannesburg and then a short flight to Polokwane, I was met by the Projects Abroad staff, they were helpful and friendly and I was driven to the Botswana and South African border. The change was drastic as soon as we left the border and you become submerged in the bush whilst being driven to camp. On this journey you would get examples of the African wildlife which could be seen such as warthog and eland.
My time at the Conservation Project
It is slightly intimidating when you first go into camp. You don’t know what to expect, however, the group was from a variety of different places and all of them are kind and friendly as you settle in. You soon get to know how things around the camp work. Along with talking and eating around the campfire you get to build friendships amongst the group. My first night there was a sleep out in one of the hides although we didn’t see much; it was still an interesting experience getting to experience the sounds of the bush at night with an amazing night sky.
For most tasks we would be divided into two groups which would alternate the tasks done in the morning and afternoon. Some parts of the conservation work were hard work, like digging up a chewed water pipe and moving the logs of the trailer taking considerable effort. Despite some hard work it was worth it knowing that we had helped in the welfare of the animals in the area. This was highlighted when we managed to remove snares as well as a trap which had become stuck in the ground.
Another of the main activities we did was the bird and animal observations at the hides, most of the time it was well worth the wait often with elephants, zebras and wildebeest turning up. Elephants were a common sighting with large herds of over 20 or so. One of my most interesting experiences was watching a matriarch elephant charge at the bull elephant this was truly an invigorating experience and fascinating to watch. By removing the wire from old fences and snares we would try to help the animals in having a free and unhindered passage through the bush.
There was one case where we had to sit on a kopje or rocky outcrop as the elephants passed slowly beneath us so we couldn’t remove the wire! We also did vegetation and baobab surveys to help us understand and estimate how much damage is done to the vegetation as well as the damage done to the baobab trees some of which are thousands of years old.
One of my favorite activities and by far one of the most interesting was predator tracking, this gave me a great understanding in how to track animals and tell the difference between the prints and scat they leave.
Every so often at weekends we would have a day trip, this involved for my group going to Limpopo Lipadi game reserve. This was truly a unique experience in which we got to track a rhino and her baby and get close as possible to them. We also saw hippos, giraffes and ostriches which added to the trip greatly as well as the large variety of birds such as spoonbills.
Another trip we took was to Louis Trichardt this was a great opportunity to see South African culture in the region as well as learn some history of the area, this was a great break from the camp despite the local kids completely out performing us when we played soccer with them.
Unforgettable moments on the Conservation Project
At the new camp which we had helped to make, we would have sleepovers where there was a campfire and we’d keep a lookout for hyenas and possibly other animals. On my first sleepover at the camp whilst we were cooking we heard the unfamiliar call of a leopard and we decided to bundle in the car and watch out for the leopard in the bush. It gradually came closer to almost 15 meters away, it took particular interest in our tent and unfortunately we had left our bags and jumpers outside of which this particular male leopard decided to inspect and play with. After an hour of watching the male leopard steal and play with our jumpers and sleeping bags it was set to be a cold night!
Even though it took a long time for us to get our items back with one volunteer’s sleeping bag being found in a tree and my jumper being torn to shreds it truly is a moment I will never forget. The new camp was a great a place to get close to hyenas as well. After having our own supper they would become attracted to the smell and come close to camp, in some cases within only a couple of meters this was another great sample of African wildlife at its best as we would watch them play around us.
On my way back to the airport it allowed me to reflect on my time in the bush and how despite my month there going quickly it had been a great learning experience and much of it I shall remember for life. With new people arriving at different times and a great relaxed atmosphere I would certainly go back there if I had the chance and recommend it to anyone who wants to do something worthwhile on their gap year.