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South Africa with Hamba Africa.

Updated: Sep 10, 2023

It's January 2021. Lockdown. Tiers. Furlough. Not exactly the best time to click on a scholarship for volunteering link that popped up on Facebook...





But click I did, and what I saw looked very interesting. 'Hamba Africa' was the name, and the projects sounded right up my street. I knew if I were to ever go to any place in Africa, it would be to contribute and learn, not just go on a photographic trip. Excited and feeling optimistic, within a few minutes I was talking to the owner, Harry. I told him I was a bit lost career-wise, but I knew I wanted to be able to use my photography for conservation and to also gain more insights into a career path. After filling out an application form and explaining my history and aims, I was accepted for the scholarship, and I was going to South Africa. In 7 months.


A huge blow for Hamba and those who benefit from and rely on Eco-tourism and volunteers in South Africa, Covid restrictions stopped 2021 trips from happening, and so I decided to reschedule for August 2022. More time to prepare and being able to spend my birthday surrounded by wildlife sounded more than ideal.


I had never been abroad alone before and had only been on a plane across the water and back to Belfast, so people were a bit shocked when I told them I would be doing it, especially when I'm not exactly the most outgoing or confident of people!


Harry was brilliant in supplying information needed, and was always happy to answer any questions I had as well as advice on insurance, vaccinations and equipment.

I was running a blog at the time, and he even spared 15 minutes for a quick interview and a few further emails down the line I told him I would love to write about the trip and so here we are!


After a long wait and very generous people contributing to my trip it was time to leave and spend 4 weeks on Hamba's Long Term Wildlife Volunteer Placement .


Two flights later, I was greeted by Harry in the airport in Johannesburg and we set off on an educational journey to the reserve where I would be for a month,immersed in the wildlife I had loved my whole life.


We arrived at camp, and while I couldn't believe this was what I would get to see every day, it all seemed so familiar. Zebra, warthogs, and wildebeest were grazing, and rhinos and their calves were dozing in the afternoon sun. It just felt like that was where I should be. 27 years of waiting, and here we were.





It's November now as I'm writing this, and looking back, I was definitely very casual about the whole thing, and even though I filled up 4 memory cards, wish I could have made more images and videos as I am working on a collection of prints to raise money for Save the Waterberg Rhino. I do have a lot of ideas for next time though!


Arriving on a Saturday meant that we had Sunday off to recover from the flight and settle in, and get to know the Biomonitoring Officers (referred to here as guides) and fellow volunteers into the night around the fire.


Monday arrived and it was a full day of introducing us new arrivals to the equipment we would be using for the month, the process of monitoring Rhinos and finding Lions on a Zebra kill! Not a bad introduction.



The work is varied, and covers all aspects of managing the health and state of a reserve. Data collected on vegetation, game transects, and Rhinos gets sent to the lead ecologists, enabling them to know who is eating what, where, and the dynamics of herds and species.


 

It can get hectic, however, as often you need to log Wildebeest, zebra, and Warthogs all moving together and note their ages, sexes, and body conditions. This is where the experience of the guides is indispensable, as they are able to do this quickly, and your fellow volunteers are there to help take notes, enter data, and measure the distance and bearings! It's great fun, though, and when there's a big group of animals like that, when you come across just a few, you're very relieved. Sharp eyes help too, as sometimes animals can be good at hiding...




Being out in the bush all day is something I really enjoyed. I love seeing animal behaviour and learning about the conservation of species and a talk with Dr Zoe Glyphis on the veterinary side of things was really informative, followed by visits to the predator bomas. We also got to spend time with Dr Peter Caldwell when we had two interventions to attend to and for the veterinary students on the placement, this was very exciting! The first was a lioness who was thought to need a collar change and at the same time, we were looking for an injured male lion, to assess how bad he was. After a couple of days searching, we finally caught up with the females on the 15th August.


There aren't many better ways I could think of spending my birthday, but setting off that morning, there was a sense of anticipation in the air. We split off into two groups, and after giving the vehicle a push start, and being inspected by a giraffe, our group set off looking for the male lion. He had been spotted in the area and there were tracks with one leg dragging; however, they disappeared into the bush, and we had no luck. We then got a call saying the females had been located, and we set off to join them.

 

Once she had been darted and was asleep, the vet based volunteers were able to gain some invaluable experience, while I was content to be able to feel her feet and claws and be close to an animal I used to want to be. Happy birthday!



 

When I was running the blog mentioned earlier in 2020–2021, I became very interested in Rhinos and their conservation, and even more so after buying tickets to the premiere of 'The Last Horns of Africa'. If you like Rhinos, this is the placement to be on. If you are not too fussed about Rhinos, you will be by the time you leave!

 

Having bookshelves full of cheerful subjects covering the illegal trade, poaching, and canned hunting, I was so happy I got to witness brilliant numbers of Rhinos and their calves, including 'resident' Rhinos.



Our second intervention featured an elderly Rhino cow. We had seen her the day before and logged her condition, which showed she'd had a bit of a hard time of it recently. I remember commenting to our guide how amazing it must be to see Rhinos able to live until that age. Unfortunately, she had gone down in the night, and we waited with her until the vet team arrived. As most Rhinos on the reserve actually have owners and are now on the reserve for safety, permission is needed from them to make a serious decision, and so after a long few hours, she was in a boma, safe at least from predators, and her condition could be monitored. It was a tough emotional day, and I think we all went to bed that night with her in our thoughts. Unfortunately, the reality of conservation means not all stories have a happy ending, and the next day we found she hadn't made it. 


After a calm decompression day we then watched the film 'Stroop' which is another film surrounding poaching and another I highly recommend you try and watch!






Each day on the placement offers something different, even if you are getting into the swing of things with the work that needs doing. Camera traps are placed throughout the reserve to monitor the movements of elusive animals such as Black Rhino and Leopard and the locations of each camera are noted for when it's time to check them and replace batteries. Part of our group who had been there for a few weeks longer had placed some with another guide, and it was time to check up on them. One had been attached to an identifiable tree to make it easier, and after a couple of passes and doubts about where it was, we realised that the tree had disappeared with help from the elephants!

 

Another day we were driving back to camp, and suddenly we were rushing down the roads in response to a sighting...Pangolin!


 

One morning we set off at 6.30am to travel to the south for what we thought were transects, but instead were surprised to find our guide had actually taken us to see a game release!


Night drives and sundowners are another way to mix things up: viewing the Milky Way on an airstrip, watching the sun set over a glorious landscape, and having the opportunity to see nocturnal or more elusive animals.


Sundays are your free time and you can choose to spend these how you wish. I personally chose to get up early and take advantage of the morning light for photos.

As I was having my breakfast one morning, I was joined by an African Hawk Eagle having its breakfast consisting of a warthog carcass just next to the fence.




It also gave opportunities to get some backlit images adding some atmosphere into behavioral shots.





I was coming up to my final week of my trip, and I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I loved everything about what we were doing. My health improved; I wasn't getting attacked by harvest mites or eczema flare ups as I do at home, and I only had one issue with my back and blood pressure from standing too long, which was my own fault. It all felt so right.

 

 

I mainly spent my evenings editing images and taking photos of the animals who passed by as the sun went down, and I know that photography has to be my main thing in my career.





The guides are really friendly and are always happy to stop at any animal you wish to see, and let you take photos or answer any questions you may have. As work quietened down, there was the opportunity to look for other animals we might want to spend time with. One day we tried to find the Western Pride, and once we finally found them lying in the shade, the male Tembe trying it on with one of the females, cubs popping their heads up occasionally, I sat there and thought THIS is what I could do. Just watch Lions doing nothing. It's great.




There are opportunities to go and visit other areas and one of the trips out with Harry was to Marakele National Park, home to the largest breeding colony of Cape Vultures and glorious views!



 


LION MAGIC


Going to sleep in a tent listening to baboons barking, jackals calling and drowning out Hyena calls is an amazing experience.


Waking up to Lion calls is another thing altogether.


The male lion who was missing had been calling for a couple of nights during my last 1.5 weeks and had been sighted quite near camp. Every morning I asked if anyone else had heard, and they hadn't. Then one night, as we were making lunch for the following day, they heard it too. I wasn't going crazy.

 

 

The only problem is that he was in Tembes territory. Dinokeng was from the South, and they had an on-off relationship, but after he made friends again with Tembe, they once again fell out, and then Dino was injured. From sightings over the final two weeks, it seemed Dinokeng had been following the fence line, probably scared.

 

On my final morning at camp, in the early hours, I awoke again to Lion calls. Only this time, there were two different types. Had Tembe caught up? I lay there for a while and decided to get up and get breakfast. The night before, I had left my camera up by the kitchen as I usually did and, for some reason, decided to take it back to my tent. As I sat with a brew, I tried to record the calls of the mystery lion, when suddenly, out of nowhere, he appeared. I dropped everything, and we stared at each other. I grabbed my camera, shaking with adrenaline, and followed him.

  

Here's a video of the calls before, spotting him and after:




He walked in an arc, watching me, and nicely placed himself right in front of a fallen tree as if to pose. 








As he walked off into the distance calling, I wondered what on earth just happened. Where is everyone else? Surely they heard him? I hope so! Did they get to see him??

The wildebeest certainly did and they all lined up grunting even though he was just patrolling.




Our guide Marge walked down towards me and she had heard him too. Although slightly disappointed it wasn't Dinokeng we jumped into the car excited for a private viewing right by camp and due to sleeping Rhinos blocking the back gate, drove through the middle of the tents to the front. If people weren't awake before they would be now!

Unfortunately he had left as quickly as he appeared and, so as is good guide etiquette, Marge radioed the lodges out for their morning drives to give them a heads up as to where he was headed.





It might have been my last morning but I was on a high. I couldn't think of a better ending. Well apart from being able to stay!



 

There are so many more stories but I think this is long enough and hopefully gives an idea of what you could experience!


Hamba Africa is a company that is worth considering if you want to visit South Africa and volunteer. Perhaps you want to gain a diving qualification? Why not book a diving placement!

Would you rather make an impact in communities and work with people? Go for it!


Whichever placement you choose I can guarantee that you will have a brilliant time and be looked after with new knowledge and experiences to take away.


I can't wait for my next trip out with Hamba and getting back to where it feels like home. I have lots of ideas of things I want to write about, content to create, and show people the work that goes on and why but for that to happen, I have to get back myself!


All in all, in terms of finding 'what I want to do' I am certain it involves documenting wildlife and conservation work, inspiring and educating others and sharing the magic of what the natural world has to offer.


Let's see how it goes!




A big thanks to Hamba Africa and Welgevonden Biomonitoring for the opportunity!




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