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Operation Wallacea - South Africa 2015

By Lydia Barsawme

IEGS in South Africa 2015

July 8th, and everyone is gathered at the airport, excited and ready to go. After x amount of forgotten passports, struggles with lost cameras and uncompleted documents for entering the country, we finally landed in Johannesburg after many hours on the plane trying to kill time by watching Disney, The Great British Bakeoff, or any possible sci-fi movie we could get a hold of during the flight.

We got picked up by probably the smallest possible bus we could have gotten, (we were pretty much swimming in a sea of huge backpacks) which took us to the charming Moafrika Lodge, where we spent the night. We ordered pizza, enjoyed the sun, played cards, and some brave people even took a dip in the ice cold tiny little pool. After a fantastic 11-hour night’s sleep we woke up for a quick breakfast and then back into the little bus which took us back to the airport. Why? See, that’s from where we caught the next bus. 

After a long time of waiting for the other, German, school group’s flight to arrive, we were finally gathered together and very intrigued by their Indiana Jones/Mr. Heffernan mix for a science teacher. Picture this: 

Anyway. We got into the bus together with the Germans. Finally a large bus, with an actual toilet. We spent the following 8 hours in that bus, playing cards, heads-up, blasting Africa by Toto, some good old Carly Rae Jepsen, and the Frozen soundtrack while getting to know the other school group a little more. 

Tired and restless, hungry, and ready to get out of that bus, we spotted the first of the BIG FIVE. We hadn’t even gotten out of the bus, and we were already seeing lions? Too good to be true? We’ll see. We were greeted by the researchers and managers and the university students when we finally arrived at Thanda Private Game Reserve. Any hard feelings that had developed during the last demanding 8 hours, were blown away by the amazing camp that we would get to spend the next week at.

Our days at Thanda were a rollercoaster. In smaller groups we did bush walks (yes, actual walking with no vehicle through the bush… Very hardcore), game drives, bird point counts, and line transects  I would lie if I said it didn’t create some tension when some groups were more lucky than others when it came to spotting megafauna. I think the turning point came when one lucky group spotted the white rhinos. And cheetahs. And lions. And elephants. To be fair, the researchers and guides did not try to lower our expectations concerning the elephants. ”There is no way you will leave the camp without having seen the elephants, they are everywhere.” That seemed positive, but as the days went by the hope of spotting the iconic animals slowly but surely started to run out. The lucky group continued to see a lot, eventually seeing all the big 5, although the Buffalo was from a distance.

Despite this we were lucky over all. Most of us had never seen an environment even slightly like this one, and certainly not been so up close with so many incredible wild animals. For a lot of us it was incredibly hard to take in what we had gotten the priviledge to see and experience. I am, personally, very interested in the underlying ecology and conservational work that Operation Wallacea carries out, but what is incredible with experiencing the miracles of nature in person is that it makes you even more interested and curious. I do not think anyone left Thanda without having their eyes opened to new things to be curious about. It could be concluded that the more you learn and experience, the more you want to learn and experience.

We had intense schedules during the days, but we had a lot of relaxing evenings by the camp fire, singing, debating, listening to lectures, grilling marshmallows. For a lot of us, this was when we actually had time to bond with the other group as well as with each other. 

Towards the end of our stay all groups got the opportunity to go on a night drive. Personally, I pictured an animal filled, dark, noisy, very living scene. Sort of as if all the animals finally came to life during the night, in a Night at the Museum kind of way, which we would get to witness. Perhaps slightly naive considering how much we had learned about the distribution and behavior of the fauna. Well. I am not going to lie. The night drive was a bit of a bust animal wise. (With the exception of the lucky group of course.) However, the savannah became something entirely different at night, and not in regards to the animal life, or even the environment we were in at that moment, but in the sky. The stars were absolutely incredible, unlike anything I have seen before. (Maybe in the middle of the night on a small island in the middle of nowhere in Indonesia…) We could literally see the milky way, with no binoculars or camera zooms. It was a breathtaking end to our stay at Thanda.

So, after a week of lectures on birds, herbivores, predators, and a lot of time spend setting up traps (involving rotten meat, how amazing) and digging through buffalo dung to observe insects with the eccentric Dr. Breytenbach, it was time for us to leave Thanda. A couple of sad (yet excited) faces said goodbye to our fantastic guides and researchers. Some because they would miss the place, some because they still had not seen the elephants. And some simply because they had to say goodbye to the most incredible week of their lives. 

What happened next then? First of all, of course, a 2 hour ride to our next destination - Sodwana Bay!

After having stayed in surprisingly nice huts in Thanda, we got to experience a week of a slightly lower living standard. In pairs or groups of three we shared tents, but I think it is fair to say that most of us tried to spend as little time as possible in those.

The week at the marine site was – if possible – even more overwhelming than the week in the bush. Most students spent the first couple of days doing their practical dive course to get their diving certificates, before going for fun dives to explore the coral reefs.

A lot can be said about coral reefs when you have seen them in pictures, in movies, and learned about them in lectures or lessons. But nothing can really compare to actually seeing it in real life. Some of us had dived before, but every location is different, and Sodwana Bay did not disappoint the slightest. Getting to see sting rays, nudibranchs, large colorful parrotfishes, sea turtles, and various different small fish species and crabs, we were already amazed. However, no one expected to get to experience the unexplainable feeling of swimming and snorkling with bottlenose dolphins.

For many of us I think that was the highlight of the trip, when a family of dolphins joined us towards the end of our dive, and swam around and played with us. Nothing is as overwhelming and humbling as feeling that you not only get to see, but even interact with, animals like these.

It is difficult to decide whether seeing the turtles, swimming with the dolphins, watching the humpback whales swim around our boats, or visiting the reef sharks’ cave made the biggest impression, but altogether, the week exceeded all expectations for, I think, everyone. 

Just like in Thanda, we got to listen to incredible lectures about the things we had seen during the days. We learned about species identification, conservational issues, threats to the reefs, the biology of the ecosystem we were so fascinated by. This, however, was not the only thing that we got to do while back at the camp in the evenings.

Towards the end of our stay at the marine site, and the end of our expedition with Operation Wallacea, a group of local Zulu dancers came to perform for us, to collect money for basic necessities and to give us what I think was one of the most incredible evenings I have ever had. Seeing and receiving such incredible and positive energy from the Zulu children was another very humbling experience which I think none of us will ever forget.

Our final days in South Africa were spent close to the marine site, still in Sodwana Bay, but no longer together with OpWall. We spent the last days at Sodwana Prepratory School and it was– maybe it is tiring to hear the same adjectives over and over, but the only right way to describe it is – yet another incredible experience.

The students at the school were of ages from 5 or 6 to 13 years old, and we got to spend time with all of them. Helping out with the smallest kids – playing with them, drawing with them, as well as doing our best as extra teachers in the english or biology or math lessons for the slightly older kids. We also did a lot of sewing. Specifically costumes for the upcoming school play, Sodwana Prepratory School’s take on The Lion King 2. We made bumblebee- and bird costumes, painted scenery, and got to hear some of the songs they had learned already. Some students and teachers helped work on the road, which was one of the main problems for the school to finance. 

It is difficult to put into words what you can learn from giving. We gave them some financial aid that we had collected before the trip, but I think more importantly we gave them our time. Interestingly enough, I think this experience gave us more than we could ever give them. Insight to how it is to live in a society so different from the one we are used to, perspective on what makes life intriguing and a privilege, and the importance of being humble, open to new things, and to show gratitude. 

Before we left Sodwana for a very, very (very) long trip home, we spent a day at the local Elephant Park. The headmaster of the school helped organise a visit for us to get to go there, and for that we are all extremely grateful, especially me, maybe. A quick revisit to the bush landscape was fun after diving and spending some days at the school, but more importantly, it let us SEE THE ELEPHANTS. When picturing a trip to South Africa, working with conservation and the bush ecosystems, it is not hard to see why elephants would be a part of the expectations. To then not get to see a single one during the week of terrestrial ecology did make some of us, or maybe that was just me again, slightly disappointed. So this way of ending the trip was the best possible way I could have imagined. The incredible, iconic, African bush elephant does indeed make a huge impact when you get to see it up close. It might even make you shed a tear. 

Most of the things we all got to see and experience during this three week expedition are almost impossible to share through writing, but for all of us it was a trip we are likely to never forget, and the memories will be cherished forever. Not only have we gotten to see incredible things, but we have learned a substantial amount in the process. Both scientific knowledge, and knowledge about what it is to be a human in this world, with everything that comes with it, have it be other people, countries, animals, communities, values, or experiences. It brings us all together.

Ester Eriksson, IB3G




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