Close up of a hippo being fed

My South African Journal

If I was given the opportunity, I’m sure I could write a book about how my life changed in this perfectly beautiful country, but I only have space for this article. I’ve spent the majority of my life fantasizing about the day that 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 found myself searching South African volunteer vet projects online and came across African Conservation Experience (ACE) and it was exactly what I was looking for. I applied and was accepted and the whole team, and 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 baking 2,937 cupcakes/slices, etc., and my father contributing a generous amount of money, and we raised the required amount. I travelled home from university, a million textbooks and study notes ready to travel with me to prepare for my mid-semester exams upon my arrival home, 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, the town in which the clinic and my host family were located. 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 fed vultures, got face to face with a leopard, a lion and lioness, touched a cheetah, played with a warthog who was certain 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 in which we learnt about their anatomy and got extremely up close and personal, having to climb a small grand stand to get on its back at the end. I kept a journal each day, separating personal experiences with 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 4:30am start saw on at the game reserve by 6am to meet the team we would be working with. We packed the game vehicles and after our introduction we set off to find the rhinos. The helicopter squad took Doc up to find the first and dart him. We were working with black rhinos. They’re different to white rhinos in relation to 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 to me to be somewhat smaller 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.

When they woke up we found ourselves running back to the vehicles, as they were very angry and agitated when they awoke. This was evident in the 5 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, injected 25mL of penicillin and 2mL of perphenazine enanthate (a long lasting tranquillizer to take the edge off them for a couple of weeks). We managed to get 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 that was charging back through the reserve, the doctor who was 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 whole sky change colours and the sun eventually disappearing behind the mountains. The sunsets 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 so at home. If that wasn’t good enough, as the doctor was driving out of the reserve 3 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 will eternally remain here.

By Kirsten Sharbine, ACE Volunteer