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Phinda Wildlife Research Project: 28 November - 12 December 2023*
When I travel I always look for a purpose to allow myself to do so. I look for a proper excuse to explore another continent, country or culture. Africa has always been on my to-do-list, but I never found the right excuse to make a visit.
I always wanted to see the scenery of Africa, but not with a group of people snapping pictures every second. I always wanted to see the almost mythic animals of this continent, but not with a tour guide pacing the experience, telling me what’s what. I wanted to experience it on my own terms, feeling a part of it rather than just looking at it.
I was coming to terms with the fact that I was asking for too much, that I couldn’t seem to find the right excuse to visit. That is until the summer of 2019. The project going on in the Okavango Delta really spoke to me and all the sudden my ideal experience of Africa seemed within reach.
As I got closer to Botswana, I felt an interesting feeling, I did not at all know what to expect, even after doing a bunch of research beforehand. What the Okavango Delta offered me was not what I expected. When I come to think of it, I was not exactly sure what to expect. It is difficult to retell my experience with words, but I will make a valiant effort.
I would think that the different people volunteering for this project would all have different expectations for the experience. I expected to be part of a larger group of people, which was not the case. It was me and one other, we were met in Botswana by two local trackers accompanying us throughout our stay. Apparently, they sometimes have larger groups, other times they don’t, and I rather liked the liked the authenticity of the project. The program and routines were not necessarily written in stone.I felt like I was volunteering on a genuine and real project.
Before I knew it, I was out in the bush, camping in what felt like the heart of Africa. I knew I signed up knowing this, but still – this place was secluded and wild! And I loved it.
We had a lot of work to do, every day we woke up early, doing transects, mapping out the area and the animals visiting or inhabiting it. Sometimes you would see no animals at all, apart from a few antelope species and fresh carnivore tracks from the night before, other times it was animal kingdom- with giraffes, zebras, elephants, lions, wild dogs, hippos, crocodiles and plenty more. This is not a zoo, this is the wild country and the feeling I got when animals did appear felt very authentic and rewarding. I genuinely felt like being in the terrain of the animals, many of which have never seen a human before. Every minute of the day I got the sense that anything could happen and in my case, things did happen.
Elephants approaching us, hyenas walking into camp, the roar of a lion in the bushes close by. Things that would feel scary and unsafe if it wasn’t for the wonderful trackers accompanying me all the way. These guys are hands down experts in their field, I’m sure they were secretly raised in the African savannah by these animals. Similar to Tarzan in the jungle.
Our base camp was at a site named Kamelthorn and we had smaller tents ready for nights in other areas. Before coming to Botswana I was afraid I didn’t have enough experience to really help and bring anything of value to the table, which I guess was true, but I still found my role in the daily routines. Preparing food and carrying equipment to the vehicle before a transect, or scouting for firewood before nightfall. Regular tasks that normally would be quite forgettable, but in this territory turned out rather memorable.
For me, surprisingly, the most rewarding aspect of this whole experience was the quiet moments. After an exhausting day coming back to camp, sitting by the fire you yourself made, as the sun sets and the brightest stars you’ve ever laid eyes on becomes visible above your head. Seeing a satellite pass on by, as you hear the crackling of the firewood, simultaneously feeling the bone-chilling roar of a lion or hyena far off in the distance. Sharing stories about your home with the trackers and listening to theirs. Then to set your alarm watch to the given time decided upon in the group, readying yourself for the next day.
Saying goodnight, brushing your teeth out in the remote darkness, seeing a pair of glowing eyes in the distant bush staring right at you, probably wondering who I am and what I’m doing.
Then to tuck myself into bed, laying in my tent as I rewind my thoughts and revisit the day. No internet, no power or cellphone reception. Falling asleep to some hippos fighting in a river close by, sounding like prehistorical dinosaurs from an era impossible to visit – but there you are.
Then pushing on the next day. A new transect in the African heat, sometimes boring, but in a good way. If there is such a thing. At times it could go hours without seeing the carnivores I hoped to see, which though gave me the time to notice and appreciate other aspects of this land – like the variety of birds which seemed like legendary Pokemons. (Yep, I just referenced an animated cartoon for children). Then to yet again return to camp for my second favourite activity;
Taking a walk just far enough to make the trackers worried. Sit down with my book or diary, in the heating sun, next to my favourite (and secret) reading spot; the almost torn-down elephant tree. I could sit there for hours, at moments getting just a tad too invested in the story that I forget where I was – then to look up from the book having a warthog staring right at me, before running off into the bushes to wherever it came from in the first place. Seeing a family of antelopes running with a thunderous sound through the terrain just meters away, not even noticing me because I blend in.
One day as I wrote in my journal, a huge, old male elephant was sneaking through the bushes, eating leaves and ruining another tree for me to use as a future reading location (I made a point out of relaxing on poor ruined trees vandalised by elephants, they had a fascinating vibe to them). The elephant, with its wrinkly eyes and huge tusks, looked at me for a moment, as I felt we bonded he took a massive shit and went on with his day.
Beautiful, just beautiful.
Every morning a new animal's dung was outside my tent. The night was a peaceful break for me, but outside life went on. I was constantly reminded just how wild and pure this place was.
This summer I have befriended a crazy yellow-billed hornbill at camp, his name is Zazu Bazooka. I have been in the middle of a herd of close to a thousand elephants bathing and playing in their temporary paradise. I have seen the most expensive human-made object in history, the ISS space station, hover above in the night sky across camp – me trying to explain to the local trackers what NASA is and what they are doing up there. Which in a weird way is not so different to what we are doing down here.
Like I said to begin with, I believe people come out of this program with different experiences. It mirrors what you bring, and there’s no recipe of what to expect. This was a near-ideal experience for me at this moment in life, it was also a personal one, which makes it difficult to recommend when I don’t know who is reading this. I could write on about my experiences forever, they felt never ending and they certainly will never be forgotten. If you ever do decide to visit, say hello to Zazu Bazooka for me.