Met by Martin Bornman – delightful chap – who gave all arrivals an excellent talk on what we could expect and then set me and my companions on our way to Richard’s Bay. We were met by a taxi driver, who, after a chance for luxury supply purchase delivered us 2 hours later to Swilley’s Camp, (north Phinda), which would be our home for the next 4 weeks. Basic, but very comfortable accommodation – we would be responsible for our own cooking, using wide ranging, generous and well balanced provisions delivered weekly – you make what you will of it and we did very well! (A delightful lady will take care of most of the cleaning and laundry, but again expect some of these chores when she has time off, etc.). No sooner had we arrived and, having been met by our young, enthusiastic and very knowledgeable monitors, we were off on a drive to see 2 adult male lions spotted at a nearby water hole.
While the monitors do their best to plan what/where they will be taking you, things change all the time – so expect the unexpected, go with the flow and you will have an extremely rewarding experience, as I did. You are likely to go out on a drive twice a day and, at the time of year that I attended, this was typically 06.15-11.30 and then 14.30-18.30, but again expect changes, including night drives for example, when opportunities arise. You can expect to see a huge range of wildlife on a regular basis and most drives are about tracking various species, notably the major predators, elephant and rhino. You may be involved in locating/identifying and recording their location and you will also likely get the chance to assist with such things as rhino dehorning/trimming, relocation of animals to other reserves and cheetah call-back studies. There is usually one day off each week, when there is likely a chance to go off the reserve for a meal and/or to shop for luxuries, etc. Also there is great camaraderie amongst the staff and evening/lunchtime invitations to picnics/meals, sharing provisions, are also delightful breaks to routine.
As someone who is well-travelled and particularly well-versed in adventure/adrenaline-fuelled activities I found the whole experience truly rewarding, especially as it gave me a chance to give something useful back. My daughter, Sarah, had spent an equally rewarding 3 weeks at Phinda 9 years ago and it was on her recommendation that I ‘followed in her footsteps’ – I’m extremely glad that I did!
Again, met at the airport, we were ferried to The Farm Sanctuary at Naankuse, where injured, orphaned animals are housed, as, (having been ‘humanised’), they cannot be released back to the wild. The place was inundated with adolescent, boisterous youngsters/students and, therefore, rules/discipline were necessarily higher than experienced elsewhere. Food was plentiful and offered good variety, but hygiene did not appear to be as high as I would have liked –and it was impossible to escape the open fire pit fumes, which while not unpleasant at the time, would pervade one’s clothes for days afterwards. ( N.B. One night the temperature would drop to –9 degrees – my middle range sleeping bag would more than cope, but others wouldn’t fair so well). However, I would not be here long and after a day receiving a very interesting induction into what they were trying to achieve and some boundary fence checking/repairing, I would soon be on my way to their reserve at Neuras, some 4 hour drive to the south on the 11th. (N.B. Compared to somewhere like Phinda the conservation experience is quite different in Namibia, where there is plenty of wildlife, as witnessed when examining camera trap photos, or looking at spoor/scat when walking, but it is not so evident/viewable – this is a very different, but no less rewarding experience.).
Neuras – A beautiful location in the mountainous region of the Namib, it boasts the second highest vineyard in the world, thanks to underground aquifers – an excellent tour, with wine tasting should not be missed. A predator research reserve, particularly investigating leopard/human impact interaction, its monitors were young, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, interesting and passionate about all that they were trying to achieve. Accommodation was tented, but clean and comfortable and all meals would be supplied and cooked by the very friendly and helpful staff to a high standard. Here, (as at Kanaan, further south), work would be more demanding physically/practically than at Phinda in South Africa. Expect to get your hands dirty, e.g. some reasonably demanding hiking to retrieve camera traps, etc. along with road/fence repairing and animal enclosure cleaning. However, if this 65 year-old with arthritic knees requiring replacement could cope, then any younger, fit able-bodied individual should be able to hack it! Cheetah feeding by hand was a highlight. Again, expect the unexpected, as happened to us when we dropped everything to visit a farmer who had lost 50 goats to cheetah in a month and proceeded to build a thorn bush buma with cheetah trap to catch the miscreant(s) for translocation! It’s not all hard work and there was also the chance to balloon over the Namib and to swim in beautiful mountain pools.. After a demanding, but very satisfying week it was time to move on to Kanaan – a further 4hr drive south.
Kanaan – Another beautiful desert location, where the plains between the mountains/sand dunes were larger, sandier and with fewer rocks/boulders. We were particularly lucky, as due to the first significant rains for some 6 years, the plains were transformed from a red sandy/stony desert to a green/golden flush of grass on which the light/wind played their magic.The vistas were awesome. Another predator research station, here the emphasis is on hyena. Again the monitoring staff were young, friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic and everyone else was friendly and helpful, and excellent, hearty meals were provided. Accommodation was room-based in the farmhouse, with private shower attached. Work was mainly about game counting, camera trap retrieval, camera trap photo identification, fence removal/building and looking after feeding/cleaning/re-housing of the farm’s animals. Once again though it wasn’t all hard work and there was the chance for game-counting on horseback, sand-boarding and sundowner/sunrise picnics, etc.
Without doubt this had been one of the best/positive and most rewarding 6-7 weeks of my life and I would recommend such an experience to anyone wanting to contribute to animal conservation.