From half the world away, this wonderful group of young adults found themselves at the African Impact base camp on the banks of Oliphants River, in the Greater Kruger Game Park which extends over roughly 20,000 square kilometres of both Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces, North-East of Johannesburg in South Africa. Originally proclaimed a wildlife sanctuary more than a century ago, it is home to an identified 147 mammals, 517 bird species, 126 different reptiles, and 219 invertebrates.

Here, the guides and volunteers of African Impact, opened up a new world, from the magnificent wildlife, to the stunning birdlife, and their climate change workshops, using their professionalism, knowledge, and sense of humour have meant so much to us all. Someone referred to “nerds about birds”, which was cool, fun, and amusing, but they really do know their stuff, and for sharing their knowledge and experiences with us, we will be forever grateful.

Little could have over-shadowed this learning experience for our small group, however, life being what it is there had to be some drama didn’t there? Robert’s accident was dealt with so well by African Impact, with Yolisa and Anni outstanding as their support machine swung into action, while Mark, Spencer, Rian and David, these ‘gentle men of nature’, were incredible, and their first aid is surely the reason for Rob’s lighting fast recovery, while Nuriya and Suvarnia will always be Rob’s ‘African Aunties.’

We all learn early in life of the Lion as the King of the Jungle, the elephant as the colossus, the giraffe as the tallest, the hippopotamus as an ungainly creature that loves the water, the crocodile as a threat to all life, and the wild dog, the hyena, and the vulture as the villains of any jungle environment, and our group got to experience all of those as ‘real’ experiences. 

But, changing what you know, and altering perceptions from prior knowledge, experience, understanding, or even repeated viewings of ‘The Lion King,’ or reading ‘The Jungle Book,’ or ‘Mowgli,’ or maybe even a soft cuddly toy we all grew up with, the antics of these animals have driven much of our imagination since time began, so to adapt and adopt throughout the trip may have been a challenge, but was so well met.

One of the guides, South African Nuriya Trassierra found lions on our first game drive and frequently after. She explained that the small pride of three lions would probably stay in the same area for some days, due to their mating habits. We observed them day and night and were impressed by their tolerance of us… at a distance of course.  And while the lion is ‘King,’ you have no idea how intimidating an adult elephant can be, until you get up-close-and… OMG they are huge!

Canadian guide Spencer Gallant although the ‘nerd about birds,’ he astounded us by ‘tracking’ a lion going one way down a track, a leopard going in the opposite direction, and the other species that had crossed the track overnight, and all confirmed by later research. He also shared with us how the ubiquitous impala has a keenly tuned ear enabling early warning of predators, and how quick and athletic they can be, usually relying on safety in numbers to aid their survival.

The hippopotamuses (not hippopotami) in the Oliphant River frequently cavorted and bellowed alongside the dangerous crocodiles, who probably deserve their horrific reputations. But guides like Australian Mark Hutchinson answered every query about their behaviour in the river, and at nights, when they would come out to graze, leaving a cricket pitch piece of land cropped like a mown lawn, before sneaking back into the river. You couldn’t say they tip-toe, but they are quiet. As for the crocodiles… I was happy to keep them at a distance. And probably the most surprising perspective of all the wildlife we encountered was how Alistair Dyason, another South African, explained that buzzards, vultures, hyenas, and wild dogs didn’t deserve any of their ‘bad press,’ clarifying how every society, needs its ‘cleaners,’ and how these species have an important role in maintaining a viable ecosystem.

I think we were all surprised about the amount of work that had to be done, and the group was brilliant! From camera trap changes, to data-capture, to behavioural observations, to species census, and individual animal ‘tagging,’ from the cameras, these were tasks they did, all morning, every day. And in the afternoons, with workshops and climate change lectures there was little time for idle hands. Yes, it was a trip, but not really a holiday, and one we would love to see offered to more of our students, because, the way these young adults embraced their experience, and ‘grew up,’ across the two weeks dictates that their personal growth, and acceptance of responsibility will ensure that, as adults, their choices will be more resilient, more confident, better communicated, and simply better, in the future. All the UTC objectives!

It’s no exaggeration to feel that without this, and the other research tasks, we would soon be speaking of the lion, elephant, giraffe, and others, as extinct, like we do with dinosaurs, and mammoths. But for today, partly thanks to our group, and certainly thanks to African Impact’s continued efforts, tonight, the ‘King,’ and his subjects, can all sleep just a little easier.