Right at the beginning, there was someone waiting for us at the airport, which was really nice. All of the flights were organised, everything was really good with the transfers – we knew where and when we were going to get picked up. All easy, very easy, no stress at all!
The ACE staff really knew their stuff, and everyone at Phinda was so passionate. They helped all of us volunteers get along and soon we were making jokes and becoming friends. Everyone was really accommodating. The accommodation was really nice too – it was so big, and had so many rooms! The fridge and freezer were already stocked when we arrived, to help us cook, which was really kind.
We first saw a rhino dehorning. The team gave us a talk about how it was going to happen, and explained to us about the drugs used to put the rhino to sleep and to wake up again. Then we went out, with some volunteers in the helicopter to help spot the rhinos as well. We were in a car behind the helicopter. Once we found a couple rhinos, the team darted them and waited until they were asleep. There were two that time – a mum and a baby rhino. We helped by taking some samples – skin, hair, blood and horn – and microchipped them and tagged the ears. It was a lot of things to do, but it was an amazing experience! It took a couple of hours, but it went by so fast.
We then went out later to spot the pangolin that only comes out at night. We needed to change the tags on the pangolin. Apparently, he likes to travel around the reserve a lot. The particular pangolin we were looking for was the dominant one, and he visits the other pangolins on the reserve. He is the biggest and weighs around 17 kilos. We found him, changed the tags and weighed him – he was very heavy! – and then came back to his location in the morning and saw him sleeping. At the time I was also on the lookout for elephants in case they came around and we had to leave. I’m so grateful that I got to see the pangolin in a natural habitat – such a great experience!
There was also this cheetah. He needed to be transferred to another reserve because he wouldn’t survive out in the wild anymore, due to him having ripped his skin so many times. So we had to find him, dart him, and then transport him – we got to help carry him. His hair was coarse, and you might think it easy to carry them as they’re small, but all four of us had to join in and help as he was very heavy!
I think the whole experience is very different to being on safari because we got to be involved in so many different things. On a safari you wouldn’t have had the chance to be waiting for the pangolin to come out, or see so many different animals, or learn a range of monitoring techniques including line transects – the guides are so good at teaching you. One time we saw a group of giraffes just standing still and staring, and the guides explained where a lion must be.
We’ve learnt so much in 10 days and we were so lucky with everything we saw. On the first day we got to see a leopard – in fact, we saw all of the ‘Big Five’. We had a chance to tag a pangolin, helped with a rhino dehorning, saw plenty of lions and elephants, and we even got to visit the local town and learn about the culture.