Lionesses resting in the sunshine

Behind the scenes as a researcher in Africa

I had always wanted to visit Africa for as long as I could remember so when the opportunity arose, I grabbed it. Visiting Africa as a volunteer instead of a tourist was much more rewarding than I could imagine. The company I went through, African Conservation Experience, better known as ACE, were there for me every step of the way from planning my trip to making sure I arrived home safely.

For six amazing weeks I volunteered my time at Phinda Private Game Reserve located in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It is one of the most pristine reserves on the entire African continent. Phinda is well known for providing tourists with astonishing views of the big five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino), including the critically endangered black rhino. They also have several species of antelopes, including the rare suni, cheetahs, hippos, crocodiles, warthogs, porcupines, an array of reptiles, hundreds of species of birds plus much more.

Phinda offers you exceptional game viewing experiences that you never expected to see. Within 3 hours of stepping foot into Phinda, we came across four lion cubs lying on the side of the road. Their mother had left them for the day while she caught up with two other lionesses. Luckily the cubs were not skittish as we had to park the vehicle quite close to acquire a skin biopsy sample from each one for genetic and health reasons. Right away we gained insight into what the research team did at Phinda and how they are helping in the conservation field.

On another day in the field, a sub adult male lion walked straight past our vehicle, only within two metres of where I was sitting. I was also lucky to see a lioness make a warthog kill to feed her sister’s cubs. There are only two adult male lions on the whole reserve, but they are exceptionally relaxed around the vehicles. You can be within ten metres of them and they will barely glance at you, as if you are part of their natural surroundings.

While being at Phinda for six weeks, only twice was I slightly terrified yet exhilarated at the same time. Once was when six herds of elephants came for their afternoon drink at a waterhole called “Pipeline Pan”. That was over 80 elephants! The position we parked in gave us a sensational view of these majestic animals as they surrounded us on all sides. Fortunately our guide, JR, taught us well and as long as the animals did not see us as a threat, we were safe. A few of the matriarchs gave us a few warnings then walked off while the young males completely ignored us and made their way to the mud to have a mud bath. Within five minutes, the six herds of elephants had moved on and were no where to be seen.

The second time was when we were looking for the two adult male lions on the whole 23, 000 hectare reserve. Once we located them near another game drive vehicle we decided to sit and observe them with the light we had left before the sun set. The dominant male seemed to be asleep while his brother lay in the grass only ten metres from him. Before we knew it, the dominant male had woken up and was walking straight towards the back of our vehicle towards his brother. Making sure I was sitting perfectly still, I watched him walk straight by me with nothing in between us except 60 centimetres of air. It was truly a heart racing experience and none that will be forgotten.

You’d think the largest land mammal on the planet would be easy to find, but you learn you’re wrong quite quickly. These gentle giants can hide quite easily amongst the thick bush which is abundant in Phinda, with the habitat changing every hundred metres. You start in the ancient and rare sand forest then within a kilometre you find yourself in open woodland then another few hundred metres and you’re in the typical African savannah marshland.

There are seven different types of habitats in Phinda ranging from mountain ranges to wetlands and it is simply astonishing to see the habitat and vegetation change from one to the other before your own eyes. As a volunteer at Phinda Game Reserve, you are treated more as a guest than a student. The opportunities we were provided with to go “behind the scenes” were truly amazing and not something that many people in their lifetime would have experienced.

You have access to being close with lions, leopards and white rhinos that have been tranquillised for research reasons. Seeing a wild animal so close that you can see every hair on its body and to be able to compare the size of your hand against a lion’s paw is incredible and mind-blowing.

In Phinda, no two days are the same. There is always so much happening and going on that every day is a new adventure. African Conservation Experience provided me with an unforgettable experience and adventure that I will cherish for a lifetime. I highly recommend ACE to anyone who wants to experience the rawness of Africa mixed with its natural beauty.

I would like to thank everyone at ACE and Phinda for allowing me the opportunity to partake in such an amazing adventure.

Karyn Gresser, ACE volunteer