I am currently writing this with the most gorgeous view in sight. A beautiful savannah is rolling over the hills with the South African mountains peaking over the bush. A tower of giraffes and a herd of impala are grazing in the distance and my feet are in the hot African sun. There is a golden glow on the mountain peaks as the sun sets. I’m sitting in the backyard of the GVI basecamp.
Located in the outbound bushlands of South Africa is Karongwe Game Reserve, a private reserve home to little civilization and an abundance of wildlife. There are a few safari lodges in the area and then there’s us, the GVI research team based right in the middle of the reserve.
I’ve always been fascinated by wildlife. I was the kid who dressed as a safari guide for every Halloween and was glued to animal classification books throughout youth. I idolized the animal experts on those Animal Planet TV shows and couldn’t get enough of trips to the zoo. “The animal kid,” “Safari Jeff” and a few other nicknames stuck as I grew up. With such a fascination for wildlife came a wanderlust to experience the wilds of Africa.
When I was a junior in high school, my first opportunity to travel to Africa came to be. In the summer of 2016, I was fortunate enough to receive a fully funded scholarship to join an AFS Global Prep Kenya trip for a two week wildlife conservation and host stay experience. This experience gave me my first taste of Africa, and ever since that trip I’ve been itching to go back and for a much longer period of time. Come my days as a university student, I once again had the opportunity to journey back to Africa with a greater purpose and focus study in mind. In the spring of 2019, I received a scholarship funded by the Franke Global Leadership Initiative at the University of Montana to pursue a volunteer experience abroad. I knew exactly where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do with the scholarship. A few months later and I’m South Africa bound embarking on a wildlife conservation expedition.
So here I am now. Two weeks into my program and absolutely loving it.
I am here with a program known as GVI which is in partnership with AFS Next. GVI stands for Global Vision International and is a worldwide volunteer organization that allows university students to participate in a wide range of volunteer experiences. In my case, I am in the Limpopo region of South Africa joining the wildlife research team to collect data on big cats. The GVI base here at Karongwe monitors the big cats species, collects data on them, and helps maintain the reserve as a whole. It’s busy busy busy with lots to take care of and do here at the base camp. The base never rests with about twenty people flowing in an out all day every day. There are over seven countries represented here at the moment and there’s a diverse mix of personalities, but we all have something in common: a love for wildlife.
As I said before, I’m just finishing my second week here on duty as a volunteer. So far everyday has been an adventure full of hard work and reward. You never know how the day will unfold when you wake up at 5:30 for the first research drive, but in this post I’m going to share with you what my general routine has been and what we’re up to here at Karongwe. So here’s the short version….
Each day, the team wakes up at 5:00 am and starts preparing for the 5:30 drive. Never is anyone lazy and snoozing through an alarm, because it’s always so exciting to go on drive and see what we’ll find. The duties are split up between eight people. Someone checks the vehicle, another tidies it up and prepares it for everyone who is about to load in. There’s someone boiling water and packing the coffee, hot cocoa, and milk for our mid-drive break. Somebody is loading the data binders into the cruiser and another is loading the telem. The rest of the team is chowing down a quick bowl of cereal before it’s time to depart. It’s a bit chaotic in the mornings with everyone scrambling around, but once it’s 5:30, we’re all loaded in and off to find the cats. Somebody turns the spotlight on in it’s time for morning drive.
The team goes out on two 3.5 hours drives each day. One in the morning and the other in the evening. The purpose of these drives is to go out and find the big cats on the reserve, monitor them, collect data on them, and then later plug that data into the base computer. The primary focus with the research drives is to find a group of three male cheetahs. It’s currently these three brothers that are the first thing we need to go and find each drive. Sometimes they’ll be conveniently sitting on the road close to base, other times they’re hiding away in the thick African bush many kilometers away. It’s always a wildcard for where they’ll be next, but what we usually know is where they were last seen by other lodges or data from our last research drive. Once we reach a presumed location, a volunteer sets up the telem and tries to find a signal. One of the male cheetahs has an implanted tracker inside him so we can generally find him using telemetry. However, the telemetry only picks up signals when we’re in close range and there is no interference from large trees and boulders. On a good day, we’ll stop a few times, test the telem, and then finally hear a beep from the telem indicating which direction the boys are from us.
It’s about a 50-50 chance we’ll actually end of seeing the cheetahs on drive. When we do find them, it’s time for data collection. We GPS their location and answer the main research questions. Where are they located? How full are their stomachs? Do they have a kill to feed on? What species are they feeding on? Are they mobile? Other notes? All of these notes are later imputed into a huge database.
Once the cheetah data is collected, we head off onto our next animal hunt. We start our telem tracking for Subbie, the largest male lion on the reserve. We change the telem number to match the tracker implanted in Subbie and we’re off to try and find him. He can be a bit trickier to find as he’s usually traveling solo around the reserve. Once in a while, we successfully find the glorious king of the jungle. On rare occasions, we’ll find Subbie with his four sub-adult offspring and his females. It’s an incredible moment when we’re amongst the reserve’s pride of lions. An even luckier moment we had was when we found Subbie’s youngest offspring: four lion cubs and their mother. Finding the cubs earlier this week has been the highlight of our wildlife sightings so far! They are ridiculously cute and fun to watch. It’s a rare moment to find the whole family together as the mother lioness usually hides the cubs away in the thick bush for protection.
Usually finding the cheetahs and lions will take the entire time on the drive, but sometimes the data on the lions and cheetahs are called in via radio from other drivers on the reserve or the eco-training cruisers. This makes our life easier because we don’t have to go find them ourselves and we’re given the data via radio. When this happens, we have the rest of the drive time to explore and search for the herd of elephants.
There are three main focuses that our research team gathers data on: first priority goes to the cheetahs, then the lions, and then the elephants. Although those species are the main priority, we collect data on buffalo, rhinos, and the elusive leopards as well. These species are called in from all areas around the reserve but if we’re lucky we’ll come across them and call them in ourselves. Each drive is a question mark and you never know what you might see. Sometimes we’ll see nothing but impala, other times we’ll see hippos, rhinos, elephants, leopards, and giraffes all in one drive. It’s always an adventurous surprise.
Aside from the main data we collect, we also record sightings of Bird of Prey on the reserve, rare game, and plot points were work needs to be done on the reserve. Rare game would include porcupines, genets, wild cats, aardvark, pangolins, honey badgers, and other rare animals to see in the area. Reserve work includes fallen trees and holes in the road that need to be taken care of.
Going on the research drives are incredible, but there’s a lot more work involved with the program than just driving around all day. The biggest task as a volunteer is the work involved with maintaining the research base. There are about twenty people living on the base any given day, so there’s a lot of upkeep required at base. Once a week, everyone is paired up to do base duty. This task involves cleaning the bathrooms, mopping the floors, cleaning everything up, hand-washing towels, and cooking lunch and dinner for everyone. Once a week a group goes into Hoedspruit, the closest town with a grocery story in our area, to pick up all the groceries required for the week. This is a big chore as for feeding twenty people three times a day requires a ton of food! Once a week, instead of going on drive, the group goes out on reserve work. This involves fixing roads, fixing fences, watering the gardens, clearing fallen debris, and trimming overgrown plants. Another fun thing we do each week is community work. A group signs up to go to a nearby township and teach the school children a lecture about human development skills. We are currently preparing to present the topic of abuse and what to do if you or someone you know is being abused. Other topics include sustainability, economics, and of course, wildlife. Another community event I participated in this week was playing volleyball with the school students. They kicked our butt but it was still fun to play with them!
Each Sunday, the volunteers and interns have the day off to explore the area. Sometimes we enjoy just staying on base and relaxing all day, other times we’re on safari in Kruger National Park. Kruger is renown for being one of the most popular safari destinations in all of Africa. It is such an incredible opportunity to be able to explore this 2 million hectare national park that is full of African wildlife.
Perhaps the best part of this experience is meeting a group of extraordinary individuals. Each volunteer, intern, and staff member share a passion for wildlife and a wanderlust for the world. What makes us different is our backgrounds. Where we’re from, what lead us to GVI, and our strengths and skills that contribute to life on base. As I write this post, I’m surrounded by seven different nationalities.
The hardest part about this program is saying goodbye to everyone. These people become your family so quickly and you create a bond that will last forever. They say that when you live with someone you get to know them 4X faster than if you didn’t. With the case of the GVI base, it’s 100X faster. Many tears are shed during the airport drop offs and it’s quite an emotional scene, but we remind ourselves that this friendship is just beginning and that we all have a network web of friends expanding across the globe. And just when the next groups leaves, a new batch of fresh faces arrive for the program and the cycle continues.
This experience has been absolutely incredible. It has made me love life all over again and has allowed me to gain an appreciation for the work in wildlife research. I am so blessed to be able to call the GVI Limpopo team my family. This experience has taught me so much about wildlife conservation and the unique ecosystems of South Africa. I highly recommend this program for anyone interested in volunteering with a wildlife conservation experience and for people who want to embark on a once in a lifetime experience in South Africa.
If you are interested to learn more, check out this video I made where I answer the main questions about this experience:
For more details about this program, click here.
Thank you so much for reading this post. In future posts I will be diving into more detail about this program and what kind of conservation work we did in Limpopo!