An overview for those who don’t like long trip reports…
What? A volunteer trip to northern South Africa with Earthwatch, to participate in Project Phiri (brown hyena research) for 12 days at Mankwe Reserve and Pilanesberg National Park… plus a 3-night safari to Madikwe Reserve beforehand, in the hope of seeing wild dogs.
When? August 13-30, 2009
Who are we? We’re both in our late 30s, avid travelers who also spend a lot of time volunteering with the behavioral observation team for African elephants at our local zoo.
This was our third trip to Africa, our first time in southern Africa.
Planning: The Madikwe extension and Johannesburg arrangements were booked by Gareth at Rhino Africa. He was very helpful, everything went without a hitch, and we felt it was a good value—I would definitely use Rhino Africa again if we are ever lucky enough to return to South Africa. Some other companies we contacted would not book such a short safari for us, but this was never an issue with Rhino.
The volunteer project was arranged through Earthwatch, an organization that links volunteers with wildlife and conservation research projects worldwide. This was our first experience with Earthwatch, and we would recommend them very highly. The name of our expedition was “South Africa’s Brown Hyenas” [see Earthwatch.org for more information]. An unexpected bonus of participating in a volunteer project was that we were able to get discounted airfare from SFO to Joburg through Earthwatch and Fly for Good. Overall, it saved us about $600 per ticket! If you are heading off on a volunteer project of your own, be sure to look into this.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
PART 1: The Long Haul to Southern Africa
When my husband J and I decided to take this trip—our third journey to Africa in as many years—we got a predictable reaction from friends and family: Africa, again? How do you explain this passion for the African continent (the animals, the people, the landscapes, the excitement of a game drive, the mystery of nature, the thrill of never knowing what each day will bring) to someone who hasn’t experienced it, or at least dreamed about it? And, I’ll admit, it rankled just a bit to get the “Africa, again?” question from people who had returned to Europe over and over… as though “Africa” is one place, all the same. I can honestly say that even after three trips to Africa, we have yet to scratch the surface of this vast and marvelous place. I’m just so grateful that J and I both were bitten by this bug—that neither of us was satisfied with crossing “Africa” off our life lists after a single trip. Because it would take more than a lifetime to explore everything the continent has to offer.
So instead of trying to explain, we just emphasized what would be different about this trip—it would be our first time in southern Africa, and more importantly, the main focus of our travels this time would be to participate in a volunteer project with brown hyena researchers. This would be our chance, hopefully, to give a little bit back (our time, our energy, our enthusiasm and hard work) to this incredible continent that we love so much. Plus, this would be a first for us: only a few destinations on our itinerary, hardly any long drives, and 11 nights in one place! We’ve never stayed that long anywhere, other than our own home. So this would be our chance to dive deeply into one place, rather than snorkeling around an entire country. In every way, it promised to be a different adventure than the ones we’ve had before.
We boarded that familiar evening flight from SFO to London (hard to believe it’s been a little less than a year since we stepped onto this same flight en route to Uganda!). We helped kill the long layover at Heathrow by having breakfast at Giraffe (last visited on our return from Rwanda), and noticed to our delight that the music of our favorite South African singer, Vusi Mahlasela, was playing in the restaurant. The boarding process for our flight to Joburg on South African Airways was a mystery (even to the people who worked for the airline, it seemed!), but once on board the plane it was one of our nicest flights ever—lots of legroom (admittedly, we’re both pretty short), good food, free South African wine, and a “tail cam” so we could watch the plane flying. Vusi’s music welcomed us onto the flight too, and we took that as a good sign.
As we flew over Botswana and into Johannesburg, we were greeted by a brilliant red sunrise. The airport was decorated everywhere with World Cup banners and signs: “Welcome to South Africa, Home of the Big 5 and the Other Big Game!” There was a great deal of construction going on all around the airport, and the woman from Federal Air who greeted us in the shiny arrivals hall said everyone here is really gearing up for next winter: “Only 300 more days until the World Cup!” she exclaimed.
We exchanged dollars for rands at the airport, since we wouldn’t have much chance to do that during our trip. As usual, this country has much more attractive money than our own. A lion on the 50, a buffalo on the 100, and a kudu on the 2. Maybe this bodes well for our wildlife encounters? We noticed a distinct lack of wild dogs, cheetahs, or brown hyenas, though, the animals we were most hoping to see this time around. In fact, we didn’t hold out much hope for seeing cheetahs at all. During the planning stages when we’d been trying to decide which place to go for our 3-night safari before the Earthwatch project began, several safari planners had told us the same thing: there are no reliable places in South Africa to see both wild dogs and cheetahs on a regular basis (even though several reserves do have small populations of both, these are notoriously hard-to-find animals). Since we’ve been fortunate enough to see cheetahs in the Masai Mara, we opted for Madikwe, which was supposed to give us a decent shot at seeing wild dogs. And as for those brown hyenas, well… we’d been warned that even as part of Project Phiri, volunteers didn’t always get to see these elusive creatures in the flesh.
We had a few hours to while away in the posh little lounge at Federal Air’s local terminal (free snacks! clean bathrooms! snazzy lodge brochures! Animal Planet on TV!), and I reflected on how different this was compared with our experiences in East Africa and those colorful, sometimes chaotic little airports in Arusha and Zanzibar. South Africa certainly felt tamer on the surface (or at least more organized). But like Rwanda, it’s impossible to be here and not have somewhere in your mind the complicated history of this place. Before long we boarded the little Cessna Caravan and took to the sky, on our way to the Madikwe Reserve near the Botswana border. I still felt a bit like I was in a dream—but this time, it also felt a little bit like coming home, too.
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Wild Dog Pups and Brown Hyenas: A Volunteer Adventure in South Africa
An overview for those who don’t like long trip reports…