Close up of a hippo being fed

My South African journal

If given the opportunity, I could write a book about how my life changed in this wonderful country, but I only have space for this article. I’ve spent most of my life fantasizing about the day I was lucky enough to start making a difference, not just ‘loving animals’ as I always have. A few months into my university degree in New South Wales, Australia, I’d already commenced veterinary work placements in various industries; however, this wasn’t enough. I searched South African volunteer vet projects online and came across the African Conservation Experience (ACE), which was exactly what I was looking for. I applied and was accepted, and the whole team, including my parents, was so helpful in organizing the trip, my host family, travel information, etc. I fundraised all year with a lot of help; my mother baked 2,937 cupcakes/slices, etc., and my father contributed a generous amount of money, and we raised the required amount. I travelled home from university with a million textbooks and study notes, ready to travel to prepare for my mid-semester exams. Upon my arrival home, I packed my bags, hugged Mum goodbye at the departure gate and commenced my journey.

I survived a night alone in a Johannesburg motel, met my transfer the next day and drove 6 hours to Hoesdpruit, where the clinic and my host family were. Each day was different, and we worked with white lions, buffalo, impala, reedbuck, horses, dogs and puppies, cats, birds and black and white rhinos. I spent my weekends on safaris and seeing the big 5 (elephants, rhinos, lions and their cubs, a leopard after a kill and buffalo), jumping off cliffs into waterfalls, bush walking, going to restaurants and bars, feeding Jessica the hippo, going to a silk farm, lookouts, a boat ride on the Blyde, visiting the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre where we provided vultures, got face to face with a leopard, a lion and lioness, touched a cheetah, played with a warthog who was sure he was a dog, met magnificent birds and saw wild dogs and every other animal you can think of.

We spent a day at an elephant encounter where we learned about their anatomy and got exceptionally up close and personal, having to climb a small grandstand to get on its back. I kept a journal each day, separating personal experiences from veterinary experiences, but I think there’s one day especially worth sharing:

Day 7, Tuesday 27th September 2013

Today was one of the hardest yet best days I’ve ever had. A 4:30 am start saw at the game reserve by 6 am to meet the team we would be working with. After our introduction, we packed the game vehicles and set off to find the rhinos. The helicopter squad took Doc up to see the first and dart him. We were working with black rhinos. They’re different to white rhinos in terms of the shape of their upper lip. It forms a triangle-looking shape, coming to a point at the tip. Underneath is a rough ridge that allows them to forage through trees. White rhinos, however, only eat grasses. The black rhinos seemed smaller to me; however, their aggression made up for this. When we darted white rhinos, they almost seemed to surrender, stopping more or less where they’d been hit and dropping almost peacefully. The black rhinos, however, took off once they’d been darted and would not stop until they physically could not keep going.

We found ourselves running back to the vehicles when they woke up, as they were furious and agitated when they awoke in the five captured and released today. The first four somehow managed to jam themselves so far into thick trees and bushes that we had 4 or 5 men using axes and saws to clear the area so we could get to the rhino. They’re determined animals; I can tell you that much.

Each rhino was caught, and 25mL of penicillin and 2mL of perphenazine enanthate (a long-lasting tranquillizer to take the edge off them for a couple of weeks) were injected into them. We got new foot collars on all of them for tracking, and the feeling of success after we all sat down in the back of the game cars and smiled at each other was so fulfilling. I looked at everyone around me, the rhino we’d just released charging back through the reserve, the doctor walking back to the car looking completely content, and that’s when I was sure I’d chosen the right thing to do with my life.

We finished just in time to drive back at sunset, the vet team all standing on the back of the ute watching the sky change colours and the sun eventually disappearing behind the mountains. The evenings are so different here than at home. The sun just seems so much bigger and better. I’ve never felt so completely in a different world yet at home. If that wasn’t good enough, as the doctor was driving out of the reserve, three zebra and a giraffe were grazing up ahead right next to the road, so we sat in the car, and I leant on the window watching them; nothing separating them from us, and I knew then that a part of my heart would eternally remain here.

By Kirsten Sharbine, ACE Volunteer