Sophie Gates: blindfolded buffalo near to a helicopter

Sophie's African Reflections

I knew when I applied to study veterinary medicine at university that getting in was going to be difficult so it came as no surprise when on results day I narrowly missed the grades for my offer to study at Liverpool. I quickly decided to take a gap year and reapply but wanted to make the most of my year out and do something I may never get the chance to do again.

I started looking online for gap year trips where I could work alongside vets in other countries, deciding on Africa was easy, its wildlife and beautiful landscapes are second to none. So I quickly found ACE’s website and looked at all the different projects they offered. I was already really impressed. The website was very descriptive about all the different projects and what I could expect from each one so making a choice was easy.

I filled out their online application and was contacted the next day with the offer of a place on my first choice of project, the wildlife veterinary experience with Dr Rogers. It was unbelievable how quick and efficient ACE were with their correspondence, something that remained constant throughout the run up to my trip. Every single member of the ACE team I came in to contact with was so helpful and friendly and managed to answer all my questions within a day or two! Ace organised every aspect of my trip so I didn’t have to worry about booking flights, travel insurance or transport to and from the airport while in South Africa. ACE allowed me to pay in instalments which made funding the trip a lot easier and I was able to gradually pay for the trip without being expected to pay all in one go which was really helpful.

As my leaving date drew closer ACE emailed me a list of people who were on my flight and project at the same time as me so I was able to chat to people before setting off. When we landed in South Africa we were met at the airport by members of the ACE team who took us to our different projects. Despite being so far from home and it being my first time out of Europe I never once felt unsafe or on my own, Martin (who organises all the transport and solves any potential problems we may have in south Africa) told me to contact him if I had any problems and made sure I was ok before heading off with the group of people doing their projects in the same area as me. It was a long drive but the scenery was just incredible, it still hadn’t sunk in that I was actually in Africa! I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing monkeys crossing the road!

I arrived at my project quite late and was met by a member of the host family I would be living with for the next month, Elsa. She was so friendly and told me all about what we do every day and the routine and her family back at the house,

I immediately felt relaxed and happy. I knew it was going to be an incredible month. The whole family were lovely, so welcoming and accommodating. Mrs Burns always made sure there was a meal for every dietary requirement imaginable and the food was always amazing, I don’t think I have eaten so well in my entire life (sorry mum). I got my own room and all my washing and ironing was done for me. I felt so welcome and happy throughout my entire stay. The Burn’s even spent their weekends driving us round to see all the different sites and to go on different day trips, I went and met Jessica the Hippo and got to ride an elephant! They their time to the people that were staying there and went to great lengths to ensure we got the most out of our trip, whether it was driving us for 2 hours to see elephants or getting up at 4am with us to meet the vet for early rhino dehorning. I cannot put into words how grateful and happy I was throughout my stay there and this is completely down to Sheridan (Mrs Burns) and her family.

Working with Dr Rogers was an incredible honour, I got to see and do such a massive range of things I never even dreamed I would. I was not sat 100 yards away in a truck watching from a “safe” distance, I was stood right there with the vet monitoring the breathing of the sedated rhinos and leopards that we were working with, and even got the chance to administer drugs to the animals. I learnt so much, Dr Rogers is an incredible teacher and always explained what he was doing and why, and never got annoyed at having to repeat all the long names of drugs I couldn’t remember (just make sure you pronounce the “t” in warthog, that does annoy him!), he always encouraged us to get involved, take lots of pictures and even let me take a ride in the helicopter, he is just a genuine all round nice guy and it was a pleasure working with him.

The practice has a small animal first opinion practice as well as all the mobile wildlife work that Dr Rogers does, so on the occasional day where there was no rhino to dehorn or elephant to cut loose from a snare, we spent the days at the small animal practice watching the different operations and caring for the in patients. The small animal vet and the receptionist were also lovely, explained anything we didn’t understand and were really friendly. I can’t even pick a “favourite” moment as every second, without exception, was perfect. I would give anything to go back and do the month again and wouldn’t change a thing… except maybe never coming home. The journey home was the worst part and I spent most of the flight in tears, with a very confused elderly lady next to me constantly asking if I was alright. I wasn’t, I was devastated to leave, Africa is a truly amazing place with beautiful landscapes, amazing wildlife and even more amazing people, yes it’s very different to England and at times it was a bit of a culture shock but it really changed me as a person. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t miss Africa or think of the people there and I cannot wait to be back there this summer as part of my vet course.

I remember, before I left for Africa, my Dad (who lived out there for a number of years) saying to me, “it’s amazing Soph, Africa will never leave you, it will change you forever.” At the time I thought, yeah right how can it be that different to any other country I’ve been to? But, he was right. Africa has and always will have a special place in my heart and I am so unbelievably grateful to ACE for giving me this amazing experience and all the memories that came with it. Unless you go you will never understand.

The questions and worries I had before flying out

What will I eat?

The answer is WHAT EVER YOU LIKE! Mrs Burns is an amazing cook and always makes sure there is something for everyone, if you want something specific all you have to do is ask! Breakfast was a choice of cereal and chocolate muffins and dinner was always something fantastic, often a large buffet like set up with lots of different meals and you can go and pick whatever you want. Sheridan didn’t make us lunch but she provided stuff for us to make a pack up and take with us, there’s a lovely café right next door to the practice that does great toasties and chips too!

What if I don’t like it?

The chances of not liking it are next to none, but if you feel that you haven’t settled there is always the chance to move to a different project you just have to contact Martin, not that I ever had to.

Will I be safe?

Yes! You are never left unsupervised, and the project is based in a little town with a very community-like feel, everyone knows Dr Rogers and his students and everyone is so welcoming and friendly. I never once felt uncomfortable or unsafe!

How will I contact home?

Using a mobile to text or call will be expensive and even more so to use internet data! Most phone companies will let you buy “add ons” so you can contact people back home for example I just bought 500 texts that could be sent from South Africa and this was more than enough for the month! There is wifi at Dr Rogers practice and at the cafés, bars and shops so you can get online for Facebook etc. then and it won’t cost a thing!

What should I wear?

Not pink! Is the simple answer, one poor girl on my project wore a pink top one day and received no end of light hearted abuse from Dr Rogers for it and was nicknamed “pinky”. The best things to wear would be anything that’s “bush friendly”, greens and browns. The trousers that can unzip to shorts are great for when it’s hot but I wouldn’t recommend shorts on their own as Africa has plants that will tear your legs to shreds given half a chance. A gilet or old hoody would be good as well for when it’s cool in the early morning or evening.

What will I do every day?

You are responsible for getting yourself up on time for whenever Dr Rogers needs you, breakfast will be on the table ready for you and either Sheridan or Elsa will drop you off at the practice. You’ll be picked up whenever Dr Rogers finishes for the day (yes this can be 9 o’clock at night!) and taken home for dinner.

What language do they speak?

They will talk to you in English, as for a large number of people (including Dr Rogers and the Burns’) it was also their first language, the rest of the people speak Afrikaans mostly. Although you would not be expected to speak or understand Afrikaans it is useful and I think polite to be able to make an effort to talk to people in their language, as well as it being useful to understand what other people are talking about.