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By Guest Blogger Shara Johnson

As the doctor prepared my knees for an injection on a cool spring day in Colorado, he looked at me skeptically when I told him I needed to be able to run from elephants and climb trees to escape charging rhinos.

He was probably thinking he needed to transfer me to a psychiatrist to address my fanciful delusions after he fixed up my knees. But that’s what the application form said when I applied to the Walking With African Wildlife volunteer expedition in South Africa through Earthwatch International. “I need this kind of mobility,” I told him.

Indeed, such skills were needed and utilized by others of my volunteer team, though I was fortunate to evade or stare down elephants, rhinos and others, without resorting to these particular measures. And the moments in which I did so were some of the most thrilling, mind-erasing, exhilarating, adrenaline-soaked moments of my life.

It’s difficult, to be honest, to obey your ranger when he tells you to stand perfectly still, don’t move, while a multi-ton rhinoceros with a three-foot horn is snorting and giving you the evil eye 40 feet away. Frankly, about the only thing on your mind is: “run!” But rhinos, it turns out, have poor eyesight and you are better off, if you can’t find a tree to climb, to stand still and hope he/she mistakes you for a tree or bush.

White Water Rhino

White Rhino

Volunteering on this research expedition was a life-changing event for me. It was my first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa to see its iconic wildlife, and it ignited an addiction to Africa. Since then I’ve become obsessed with getting back to that magical continent.

The purpose of the project is to collect census data on the herbivores inside Hluhluwe-iMfoloziNational Park (HiP) in order to monitor the health of their populations and help manage the park’s resources effectively and guide its conservation efforts. I had always wanted to go on safari in Africa, and when I noticed this opportunity to safari on foot rather than by vehicle, I knew I had to sign up.

Safari

Iconic African Wildlife: The Zebra

The expedition is being offered again in 2014, and I would encourage anyone in excellent physical condition who is interested in African wildlife to look into this experience. It’s physically challenging work walking across the park, sometimes in rough terrain, often up and down steep hills.

HiP is not wide-open savanna as is typical further north in Kenya or Tanzania; rather, it’s rugged and often densely treed, with a topography of perpetually rolling hills.

Sunset in Hluhluwe-iMfoloziNational Park.

Sunset in Hluhluwe-iMfoloziNational Park.

We slept inside the park, sometimes in tents, at two different camps, each of which offered their own wildlife viewing opportunities as the animals came right up to, and sometimes through, camp. Our daily routine consisted of getting up before dawn, being paired with one armed ranger for our protection, riding in a jeep to a drop-off point, and by dawn we were walking our assigned transects through the park.

While the ranger is armed with a rifle (normally their job is patrolling for poachers, not guiding tourists, but they’ve been trained to look after and protect the volunteers in their charge during these census periods), the volunteer is armed with a ranger-finder, compass, GPS, and tally sheet to mark the coordinates of the wildlife located.

Camping inside the park.

Camping inside the park.

I have encountered nothing else in my travels which has made me feel so small and vulnerable. It’s a spectacular feeling, actually, and not really one of fear; it’s just straight-up respect for the wild nature and powerful capabilities of these animals.

I never appreciated, for example, why cape buffalo are considered one of the five most dangerous animals (particularly when wounded) until confronting them on foot with their almost maniacal eyes and unpredictable nature … suddenly those horns seem much more menacing when they’re only a few yards away from you on a wild-eyed creature stomping its foot and swishing its tail with agitation.

Wild eyed

Wild eyed and only yards away!!

I acquired a new appreciation as well for the majestic height of giraffes as they towered over me. I also didn’t fully realize the scope of antelope species in Africa, and I learned to recognize many different species I’d never even heard of before.

I learned a lot of things about the animals’ behavior that I didn’t knew before. For instance, lions were not particularly feared by the rangers during the day; the large felines usually got up and left when they saw people approaching. Night, however, is a whole different story! They then become frightfully and uncompromisingly dangerous. 

Lioness by day

Lioness: not particularly feared during the day.

But the Zulu rangers considered the elephant as the “king of the jungle,” the animal singularly most feared across all circumstances.

The opportunity to walk on the ground among a world of ancient and magnificent creatures, with only one guard as a companion, was an amazing one. And knowing that my efforts as a volunteer researcher collecting valuable data will help ensure the healthy survival of the animals I so admired, made my experience that much more rewarding.

Read Shara’s complete post about her volunteer expedition: Walking with African Wildlife: The Complete Memoir

Shara Johnson plots her adventures abroad from her home in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. She particularly enjoys volunteer work as a way to begin exploring a country.

You can follow her adventures abroad at SKJtravel.net. Find her on Facebook and Twitter also.

    18 Comments

  1. Wow, that sounds like such an amazing experience!!! You are so lucky to have been able to WALK amongst some of the most spectacular wildlife on the planet!

    • Completely new kind of adventure – everyone assumes you can only observe Africa from the confines of a safari truck! Lol it’s probably a bit safer from there, but much less adventurous :D!

  2. Evan, it was amazing and then some! 🙂 I’ve been looking for further volunteer opportunities to be able to be on the ground with wildlife in the bush. Honestly, I don’t think once was enough for me … the experience is addicting; too hard to go back to safari in a vehicle!

    • You should look into Costa Rica for another volunteer opportunity – I did a great project with International Student Volunteers which saw us on the ground (water) with dolphins, sea turtles and poison dart frogs. Was an amazing experience, and you’re right up there with the wildlife 🙂

  3. Another fabulous experience to add to the list. Safari in that region is high on my bucket list, but what you’ve done is shown a better, close up and experiential manner of doing it.

    Thanks again for the heads up.
    Steve.

    • I hope you can tick a Safari off your bucket list soon! You’ll seriously have such an amazing time!

    • If you do make it on safari, there are opportunities to walk on the ground with a guide, for example in Kruger or even in HiP. It’s very different as you’re with other tourists and they make you take all kinds of precautions which hampers your mobility a bit. However, it’s the next best thing and truly, being on the ground is a whole different ballgame than being in a vehicle. 🙂

  4. What a wonderfully written article, Shara! And you are right – the “maniacal eyes” of the cape buffalo, are spot on – as far as a description goes. I would love to walk with the giraffes too – what an amazing experience – and I am so happy that you were able to experience. Thanks for sharing your visit there, and thanks to Megan for hosting you on her page! – from Kelly in Maine

    • Thanks, Kelly. Heh, yeah every time I even think of the word “maniacal” that image pops in my head along several buffalo faces I encountered on that trip. And honestly, walking among giraffes is like a dream. 🙂

  5. Wow. This is really amazing. We just recently did some exploring of South Africa, but I’m in awe of these close shots you got of the wild life. Really stunning photos! And the rhino is a rare sighting, so well done! Just a gorgeous post!
    -Tasha

    • Sounds like a perfect excuse to go back and experience Africa again, this time by foot! 🙂

    • Thanks so much! That was the really cool thing about Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is that since they were the park that brought the white rhino back from the brink of extinction, there are tons of rhinos … it’s kind of their specialty. I only saw a handful in Kruger, but saw rhinos every single day of my 16 days in HiP except for 2. 🙂

  6. There is a great book called “whatever you do don’t Run” and an interview I did with the author who is hilarious. You can see it and get a feel for the book at AfricaInside.org

    • Thanks Lori, will check it out!

  7. Wow! Sounds like you had a great trip! And the pictures are beautiful! Africa is definitely one of my dream destinations and your post inspired me to go even more. 🙂

    • Really hope you can get there! Africa is seriously one of the most stunning continents on earth!

  8. Wow what an amazing experience! I’d love to get that first hand encounter and actually volunteer to make a difference. Going to look into these opportunities for next Fall on my trip over. Crazy!

    • Volunteering definitely brings about a greater opportunity to truly experience a destination – highly recommend it!

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