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Phinda Wildlife Research Project: 28 November - 12 December 2023*
I had a very enjoyable three weeks in Botswana on an African Conservation Experience volunteer holiday, on the Okavango Wilderness Project. We were based in a campsite about 2 hours bumpy ride from Maun on the southeast edge of the Okavango Delta area.
The facilities were much better than I was expecting – I had my own tent and there was a metal bed frame so I wasn’t sleeping on the ground, there was a plumbed-in toilet, sink and bucket shower (though all open to the elements), we had an unlimited supply of borehole water for washing etc (except for 36 hours when elephants broke all the pipework in their search for water!), and there were solar panels so there was lighting, a fridge and a freezer – this meant the variety of food was also much better than expected with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
The first week I was there with 5 other volunteers – a good mix of people and we got on very well. The project on the ground was run by a Botswanian, KT, who did everything – project manager, camp manager, chef (though we all helped with cooking), driver, guide, mechanic…amazing. The actual work we were doing was driving along fixed transects of about 20km recording (on an iPad program) all the mammals we saw, plus some of the larger birds they were interested in and any recent tracks of carnivores. The nearest transect was about a 20-minute drive from the camp and the furthest about 75 minutes and each transect took up to 3 hours depending how much we saw – not masses as it was a fairly arid region and we were at the end of the dry season. It’s a long-term project to monitor how mammal numbers are changing and they’ve been doing it for several years now between April and September. From my own work I know how difficult it is to fund this type of long-term research so it was great to be part of it and support it. We’d set off 6-6.30 each morning and get back anywhere between 12 and 2 depending on how far away the transect was. We’d have lunch and then relax the rest of the day – first thing in the morning it was quite chilly, especially in the open vehicle, and I needed jumper, fleece, hat & scarf, but by 8.30 I was down to a t-shirt and in the afternoons it was often over 40! The afternoons were therefore rather long and too hot to do anything beyond reading, playing cards, relaxing etc. In the evenings we’d have a campfire, make dinner and be in bed by 9pm.
We did transects 5 days a week and one day a week we went into Maun to take people to the airport and stock up with supplies – KT organised all the food but there were good supermarkets where we could buy snacks, beer & wine (as with a fridge back at camp it was worth buying drinks!). On our day off KT drove us to and around Moremi Game Reserve which is further into the Delta region so has rivers and lakes and hence much more wildlife. We saw masses – in total on the holiday I saw 37 different species of mammal and identified 96 species of bird (but saw a lot more). I was particularly excited to see Wild Dogs 3 times (as I’ve only seen them once before) and on a night drive (which we also did a couple of times) we saw a Pangolin which is extremely rare.
Two of the volunteers left at the end of the first week and then the three others at the end of the second week, so for the last week it was just me! Fortunately, KT arranged for another Botswanian to help us with the transects which was good otherwise we might have missed lots. It was the final week of the project this year so we took down some of the main tents at the end of the week and then it was time to come home. All in all a great trip and I really enjoyed it.