The decision to travel abroad for the first time or even anytime after that, is such an exciting but terrifying thing to do. There was a rollercoaster of emotions that I felt as I planned for this trip a year in advance. I felt fear, excitement, happiness, and doubt that I could even do this all alone! However, I knew the moment I made the decision to travel through ACE that I did not have anything to worry about. As one of those people that diligently does her research before doing something, there was not a single moment I was anxious or doubtful about travelling through ACE. They gave me everything I needed to know and answered any questions I had swiftly and with kindness. I felt so comfortable I was able to trust in them and my worries subsided.
The day finally came to take off from my comfy midwestern home in the US, and it did not really click in what I was doing until I hit airport security and said goodbye to my parents. The amount of growth from just this trip that I have done is more than I could have ever gotten in a year’s worth of “regular” life experience. I just told myself what I was doing this for and forced myself to move on without thinking. When we finally took off for Africa, I was so fearful, as I have an immense fear of planes. Upon landing, it was unreal looking out that airplane window and knowing that I was about to put my feet on the ground of a continent I have always dreamed about going to since I was a child watching animal shows on TV.
I met up with the ACE representative and other students and was given a brief talk about Africa and what it is like in today’s day and age so that we knew exactly what to expect. It was eye-opening, knowing how drastically the environment has changed compared to what we are shown on TV. It was about a 6-hour drive to Hoedspruit, but it was a wonderful one. Looking out I saw great flatlands and townships which then grew into mountains. I was able to form a friendship with the person I was staying with for the duration of the program, as well as met other interesting people. When we arrived our van to take us to the reserve was already there greeting us with open arms and helping us with our luggage. As the bright and stunning African sunset, we arrived at the city we were staying in. We were greeted by the rest of the family at this point, and it felt immediately like home. They made sure everything was perfect and prepared for us, and they just had that atmosphere that makes you feel at ease. We sat down for our first dinner and discussed our lives and got to know each other. I had no idea that this would end up being one of my favourite and most memorable parts of the whole experience; dinners and games at night with the host family. I will never forget any of them and am so blessed to have spent such wonderful times together.
Sadly, during my project, the vet had broken his leg, but that did not stop him from visiting the clinic every day to work and talk to us about anything we wanted to know. On the bright side, this allowed us the opportunity to work with a plethora of South Africa’s star veterinarians. It was inspiring being around such a large group of passionate and intelligent people, who I learned so much from. The time in the clinic and out in the bush was very strenuous, eye-opening, thrilling, and captivating. You just have to jump in, get out of your comfort zone, and help whenever you can. Ask questions and always have a listening ear. During my time there I had the amazing opportunity to work with rhinos, cheetahs, sable, African wild dogs, duiker, African elephant, African grey parrot and of course the local cats and dogs! A lot of the time was spent at HESC, the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, with their dedicated and friendly staff. Being out in the wild bush was a dream, a thrilling, wild, and beautiful dream! I even was lucky enough to have gotten a helicopter ride from their amazing helicopter pilot, which was a feeling like no other flying above the bush and seeing the animals below. As beautiful and captivating as it was being in the wild bush, there are times of heartbreak, which is something everyone should be aware of when preparing to work in this field. That was a huge bonus of volunteering through ACE, it is real life experience and will help you know for sure if this is what you want to do for the rest of your life.
On the weekends, time is yours to do what you would like, unless of course there is a call from the clinic that there is something you may want to be a part of. On the reserve you stay at, you may wander and hike to wherever you please on the property. They have wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, warthogs, antelope, and the occasional hippo down by the water. I went on several hikes with my new friends, and we saw every animal they had to offer, and even the fun of identifying footprints of animals that make their way through the reserve at night. The host family was also able to provide a large packet of weekend travel opportunities to take up on. Such as horseback riding on the host family’s reserve and I also had the opportunity to go to the famous, captivating Kruger National Park. I learned so much from each of these events and had the most unforgettable time.
Overall, this part of my life so far has been my most cherished and if you choose to take this journey for yourself, you will not regret it. From the evenings eating delicious food and playing games with the host family, to embarking on missions with the veterinarians, and the wonderful friendships that were made, I will always look back and smile on these memories. I cannot wait to go back!