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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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