Johannes Chambon - African Bushveld Conservation in South Africa
As the sun rises the shadows fade. The bumpy road shakes the car on its way for an early fence removal. In the back of the noisy 4x4 volunteers are rocked to the rhythm of the road. Some are still waking up while others, camera in hand, are waiting impatiently for the stunning wildlife of Botswana to show up. After another bend a volunteer shouts to stop the car, pointing right at a bush.
Slowly the mighty bull elephant walks out. Flapping his ears he lifts his trunk to challenge the troublemakers. With the same grace he turns around and walks away leaving the volunteers with their amazement. This is just another morning at the Conservation project.
Ever since I had heard about this project, back in my second year at the university, I've always wanted to go and experience life and working in the African bush. I had never found the time or the money to fulfill this dream before, until this year.
Arriving in Botswana
As I am driven to the border of Botswana from South Africa the landscape changes, crop fields and cattle become bushes and wildlife. And then, when I think that I could not be in a wilder place, I eventually arrive in Botswana. Impalas are crossing the road; warthogs are staring at the car as it passes them by. Apart from this road, everything is only wilderness.
My host family
Time goes by but this dirt road barely curves, then finally Harry slows down the car and turns right heading to a house - a lonely wooden building surrounded by tall trees. Its walls, decorated with game skulls, remind me of how dangerous Africa’s beauty is. But this is not the end of the road. In the declining daylight of this winter afternoon, the car is slaloming between baobabs and kopjes, those particular rocky outcrops.
As the sun finally sets we enter Koro Camp. The two rows of tents lighted by the flickering flames of oil lamps form a path to the main building where the volunteers are gathered around the fireplace. This will be my home for the next two months.
My Conservation Project
The “activities”, as we called them, gave us the opportunity to feel the bush with all our senses. Our main goals in the reserve were to make a census of the biodiversity and protect the animals. To meet these goals we made mammal and bird observations, baobabs and crocodile surveys, we collected data about predators by looking at their tracks, removed fences from the old farm border area, cleared the roads, filled “dongas” and removed snares.
Even if the work was sometimes hard, like digging trenches for a new waterhole under the scorching African sun, it had rewards beyond imagination. My English is not good enough to tell exactly how I felt when I found myself 10 metres away from rhinos while on a journey in the nearby Limpopo Lepadi Reserve. Even in French, I lack the words to describe with accuracy such an encounter. And how could I describe how thrilling it was to bump into a 3 metre long black mamba on a fence removal.
Night observations were often quiet. They consisted of a three hour shift in the middle of the night, wrapped in our sleeping bags, trying to spot nocturnal animals. Most of the time we heard animals around the place but the only ones we saw were scrub hares. However, an unlucky wildebeest was killed one day near one of our observation points. This night a dozen hyenas came by and stayed the whole night in our company, eating, playing and swimming in the waterhole. Patience is always rewarded.
I learnt a great deal from the staff. They taught us how to recognise track signs and droppings, how to find our way by looking at the stars, how to behave if we encounter a dangerous animal in the bush. Thanks to them I am now able to identify about 75 different bird species, some only by their calls, 30 mammal species and a dozen of reptiles. As a biology student it was really interesting to talk with them and I was impressed by their knowledge of the bush. Who would have thought that Dassies, those little prairie dog look-alikes, are cousins of elephants?
To cool down and chill out after a hard day’s work we could relax in the shade on mattresses, or in the sun for those who wanted to perfect their tan, play chess, darts, cards, volley-ball and even mini-golf, clubs being carved sticks and tin cans.
On the weekend the staff used to drive us to the nearby village of Mathatane, home of the local staff. There we had Braais, African barbecues, while enjoying cold drinks in one of Mathatane’s two bars, and played football. We were taught by one of the staff member’s grandma how to make bracelets and necklaces with Lala palm.
Some weekends we went to the place we called “the gorge”, which is quite exaggerated for a few small waterfalls, but the beauty of the place deserves it. There we could swim and sunbathe, enjoying the sight of fish eagles flying or water monitors stalking on the river bank, while listening to the sound of the falls.
Also, once a month we were driven to Phikwe, the nearest “big” city, to enjoy civilization for a weekend. Even if I don’t mind sleeping in a tent with a sleeping bag, to lie down in a real bed after a month at the camp reminded us how lucky we are to live in developed countries. I believe that few tourists ever come by this place, because I didn’t manage to find a map of the area or postcards and at the post office it took them ages to figure out how many stamps I had to put on my letters to send them back to France. This shows very well how remote the Tuli Block is.
It seems like I’ve been at the project for ages and in the same time it was too short. Living there was just amazing. One of the most memorable things were the people. I met staff and volunteers from all around the world: Botswana, Australia, UK, Holland, USA, Denmark, Sweden, Canada, New Zealand - it was refreshing to see the world through their eyes and their culture. I had so many great times laughing around the fire or learning and playing new games.
You now have an overview of what life here looks like. I intentionally didn’t depict it too much in detail to let your imagination run and push yourself to try the African experience. I probably shouldn’t tell you that, but be aware that if you ever make the leap from your home to the airport, the way back will be even more painful than leaving your friends and family in the first place, because this experience is truly one of a kind.