Jonathan Proud - Conservation & Environment, African Bushveld Conservation in South Africa
When I was working, I'd only ever had a chance to take two weeks holiday at a time, so when I retired the first thing I wanted to do was take a longer break. I chose to spend a month conservation volunteering in Botswana.
After a night on the plane to Johannesburg and a short flight North to Polokwane, I was met by the Projects Abroad staff from the Conservation project. My flight was an hour late and the border with Botswana closed at six, so we had a mad rush to reach it in time. After the border we went at a more leisurely pace and arrived at the bush-camp just as it was getting dark.
I soon met Gerrit, the third staff member, known as the 'Crocodile Dundee' of South Africa, for his extraordinary knowledge of the bush and particularly its snakes. That first night, dinner was cooked by a French volunteer who was a brilliant cook. We took turns preparing the food, but there was always help at hand for less able cooks such as myself. I'd arrived on Saturday night, which was party time, but I wasn't in the mood after my journey and had an early night, wondering what I'd let myself in for.
Next morning things looked very different. From camp there was a view down to the river, where a group of impala were grazing on the river bank. Later, some bushbuck appeared and there were vervet monkeys in the trees. I began to appreciate what a superb location I was staying in. I had a leisurely morning exploring the camp and in the afternoon we went on a drive along the river bank. We saw hippos and crocodiles in the river, kudu, steenbok and zebras in the bush, and a great variety of birdlife.
The next day we started with a research drive in the morning, had a long break in the middle of the day and went to work on a hide in the afternoon. This was to be the pattern for the next month, though the activities varied and no two days were the same. On research drives we recorded on a survey form the time, species, quantity and GPS location of every animal we saw. There would be pairs of little steenbok by the roadside, groups of impala, kudu and sometimes eland, the biggest antelope of all. Zebra would be hard to spot, usually deep in the bush and running away. Sometimes we'd see herds of elephants crossing the road and if we were really lucky, a spotted hyena or even a leopard! Once we had the GPS location and the survey form was completed, we were free to take photographs, so these drives were wonderful opportunities for the keen photographers among us to get some good shots.
I was lucky enough to see a leopard on the first research drive. We were nearing the end of the drive and reached a junction in the road. Ahead of us was a kopje (rocky outcrop). At the top was a tree with a large rock underneath and sitting on the rock was a magnificent leopard. I was amazed that it just sat there and watched us taking photos. After ten minutes it jumped down from its rock and disappeared behind the tree. We drove around to the other side of the kopje and watched it for another 15 minutes before it finally disappeared into the bush. A few days later, we came across the same leopard brilliantly camouflaged in the dry grass. I'm sure I would never have seen it had it not been for another volunteer's sharp eyesight.
The main construction project ongoing at the time was a hide to watch elephants from. The reserve was originally a farm and is dotted with cattle troughs, each one fed from a reservoir tank. Our hide was overlooking one of these troughs. Once we got the water pump fixed and the reservoir tank filled up, elephants would arrive. The bigger ones drank straight from the reservoir tank, while little elephants and other wildlife drank from the cattle trough. This was the dry season and it was a long way from the river. When I arrived, the ground floor of the hide was almost complete. First of all we lined it with black netting as camouflage and put a protective fence up around it, to keep the elephants clear. Over the next few weeks we added an upper floor, constructing the walls from mopane tree trunks we had cut from the surrounding bush. Watching the wildlife from this hide will be a regular activity for future volunteers and as the animals only turn up if water is provided, they will benefit too.
Another of our activities was fence line removal. The area had originally been criss-crossed with fences to restrict cattle, but much of this has been 'dropped' to allow free movement for wildlife, although the fence wire was left where it fell. Animals get caught up in it and sometimes elephants will drag it into the road where it can snag on vehicles. Our task was to coil it up and remove it. This was surprisingly hard work, as the wire would get entangled in thorn bushes, some of it was barbed and on hot days moisture bees would come out, getting into eyes and ears in their search for water.
It wasn't all hard work though. Often we would take walks along the river bank or up into the hills and we'd learn about the animals from the signs they left behind - a tree knocked down by elephants, a hole dug by an aardvark or the footprints of a hippo leading down to the river. On one occasion we went to a large kopje they call 'The Office' because it's the only place in the area where you can get a mobile phone signal. We cooked dinner over an open fire and slept out, with our sleeping bags in a circle around the camp fire. Before dawn, I climbed to the top of the kopje to watch the sunrise.
Just behind the main camp building is a reservoir tank which has become the camp swimming pool. I'm used to swimming up and down at my local baths, but this one is circular, so you go round and round! While I was there an old fishing net was strung across the pool and we had a game of netball. Everyone joined in, including Jamie's dog.
Once a week, we would have a shopping trip to a nearby town. Usually this was to Alldays, across the border in South Africa. It was a chance to phone home, satisfy one's cravings for ice cream or chocolate, and have a pizza at the hotel or a game of football with the local kids. For each trip, you'd collect another four stamps in the passport!
Another day trip over the border was to the Makulu Makete Cheetah Conservation Project, where three captive cheetahs are being prepared for release into the wild. Currently, they are kept in large enclosures called bomas. We were given a short talk about the aims of the project and an opportunity to get photos of the cheetahs at close quarters - though we stayed outside the boma, while the guide went in and offered the cheetahs a tasty antelope leg! Then we had a walk through their reserve, looking at magnificent baobab trees, the biggest of which has a girth of 22 metres.
A feature of this trip that was new to me was that the group changed all the time. With no fixed dates for the project, new volunteers arrived and others left every few days. When I arrived there were only three other volunteers and they had gone by the end of my first week, so I very rapidly went from 'new arrival' to 'experienced volunteer', showing others around. By the time I left there were 14 volunteers, most staying for two months or longer. Although the majority were 'gap year' students, the age range was from 19 to over 60, so I wasn't the oldest. My month passed all too quickly and I can't wait to get back again next year.