I left Missoula in the afternoon, which gave me a whole day to feel anxious as I began the biggest adventure of my life. The first striking thing I experienced was the feeling of being totally alone in a new place. I felt empowered by this when I arrived in Salt Lake City. My first flight was short and there weren’t many people on it, but my second flight from Salt Lake to New York was much more crowded and uncomfortable. Once I got to New York I met most of the group that I would be spending the next month with while we waited for the really long flight across the Atlantic. While I was sitting there starting to get to know everyone I felt even more excited as I was just one more flight away from a place I had dreamed of my whole life; Africa!
Once we arrived in Johannesburg we found the rest of our group and our project leader, Leti. Leti was from International Student Volunteers (ISV, the organization I travelled with) and was there to guide us through our service project portion of our trip. (ISV was fantastic, I highly recommend them for an educational, culturally rich, and safe way to travel and make a positive impact in another country. Here’s a link to their website: http://www.isvolunteers.org/). After a somewhat lengthy bus ride (however it was much more comfortable than the plane) we arrived to our accommodations, Telekishi Cultural Village, where we stayed for the duration of our volunteer project. We had a tour of camp and learned about what was expected of us for the next two weeks (cooking, cleaning, and stuff of that sort).
The first day was an orientation which involved some bush survival and a run down on the type of data we would be collecting as our volunteer work. We were working with a group called Wilderness and Ecological Investments (WEI) and we would be doing bird point counts and habitat assessments in the Masebe Nature Reserve. The purpose of these projects was to assess the health of different areas in the reserve to help make management decisions with regard to where they keep the wildlife. The bird point counts help by giving an idea about what species are living where in the reserve and how many birds there are. Birds are great bio-indicators of the health of an ecosystem so this helps with determining if the space is being over used. It’s also useful in finding out migratory habits of some of the birds that use the reserve during the year. The habitat assessments were basically a measure of how much vegetation there was. If those measurements are compared from year to year it is possible to find out how much the area is being used by the wildlife.
I really enjoyed the work we were doing in Masebe. I was so pleased that we got to do that project because it is really what I want to do with my life and I can relate it directly to experience I have gained at home in Montana. For instance, earlier this summer I was working on a different bird project concerning Lewis’s woodpeckers, so it was a lot of fun for me to learn some new birds while I was on project. I also learned a ton of tree species. I found the application of the information we were collecting to be interesting as well. Although it was cold in the morning (I know, I went to Africa and was cold, how about that?) I thought it was well worth it because we saw a lot of wildlife (zebra, wildebeest, impala, baboons, monkeys, even giraffe). We also helped with some other projects, like community outreach and invasive removal. It felt great to make such a positive impact in such a short amount of time. I will cherish every moment of this part of the trip for the rest of my life. I gained valuable experience that will be useful later on in my career as well.
In addition to data collection we helped out with some other project around the reserve as well including invasive species removal, thinning of other problem plants, and game drives. We specifically pulled an invasive called lantana which had originally overtaken a little marshy area. Thanks to removal efforts though it is much more under control now and the area is regaining its health. The other problem plant we thinned was the sickle bush (pictured above). It has some really long thorns and when it grows on the sides of roads it can pop tires, so we just cut some of the tree away from the road. There was also a community outreach aspect which I will talk about in another post.