My South African Wildlife Conservation Experience: A Tour Diary
Discover Corps’ new Wildlife Conservation Experience tour was launched in June 2016. South African wildlife conservation has been a huge personal passion ever since my first visit to the country back in 2000. So I was delighted when my 14-year-old daughter and I were invited to experience the diverse itinerary for ourselves.
Having previously spent six weeks in South Africa, Tanzania and Rwanda, the biggest surprise for me was the weather. The African continent can get brutally hot in summer, when afternoon temperatures regularly reach 100º. But because South Africa is in the southern hemisphere, our summer is their winter, with daytime temps averaging 70-80º and nighttime temps dipping down to the low 40s.
But perhaps the biggest difference between Discover Corps’ South African trip and my previous one was the interactive opportunities this time around. From witnessing wildlife conservation first-hand with Project Rafiki and Care For Wild Africa to learning about traditional cultures at Nyani Cultural Village, this trip was immersive and expansive, providing a rich overview of life in South Africa.
Here’s a look at my day-by-day journal of our South African wildlife conservation experience…
This morning we met up with our guides, Conraad and Elliott, and 12 other Discover Corps travelers, then made the 7-hour drive from Pretoria to our camp just outside Hoedspruit.
Rukiya Safari Camp, which opened in April 2016, is part of the pristine Wild Rivers Nature Reserve. Its setting couldn’t be more picturesque, with the beautiful Blyde River stretching out in front of our luxury tents, riverine forest all around us, and the Drakensberg Mountains towering in the distance.
Welcomed with colorful drinks and given a brief orientation by camp director (and Conraad’s partner) Lily, we just had time to check out the posh infinity pool and the stunning view from the expansive deck before we were off on our first adventure.
We were divided into two groups of seven, with Conraad taking Group 1 for a bush walk and Elliott taking Group 2 (which my 14-year-old daughter and I were in, along with a family from Connecticut and a young couple from Michigan) for a safari drive through the private nature reserve.
Though our time before the early winter sunset (typically around 5:30PM) was short, we still managed to get exciting close-up sightings of a group of 4 Giraffes, Warthogs, Yellow-Billed Hornbills and a Black-Backed Jackal.
We also found a good spot with lots of animal tracks (and scat) in which to set up our camera trap, which we’ll check at the end of our time in Ruyika Camp to see what sort of wildlife wanders by.
This morning after breakfast we met with the founders of Project Rafiki, a local non-profit dedicated to the preservation and conservation of Spotted Hyenas through educating the general public and local communities about the Hyena’s crucial role in the ecosystem.
Camera traps in Wild Rivers Nature Reserve had discovered two Hyenas with cable/wire snares (which are commonly used by poachers) around their neck, which threatened their chances of survival. So we went to see some of the local dens Hyenas are known to use, check two camera traps to see if we could get an update on their whereabouts, and look for tracks that might give us clues.
The plan was to use a carcass from a recently deceased baboon to try to lure the snared Hyenas in. If successful, they’d do it several times to habituate them to the process. Then they’d bring a vet in to dart them, remove the snares and treat the wounds.
It was a fascinating (if somewhat disgusting) process, using blood and guts procured from a local butcher to create a scent trail leading to the carcass. Then we went out after dark and Conraad played Hyena sounds through speakers to draw them in.
Less than 10 minutes later we could hear at least four of them around us, calling and barking in response, giving us chills of excitement. Several times they came within 40 feet of our vehicle, but they wouldn’t come close until we left.
Fortunately the camera traps revealed that they did finally take the bait! So hopefully the rescue project will eventually prove a success.
This morning, after awaking to the sounds of Hippos arguing in the river, Group 2 visited Maholoholo Rehabilitation Centre.
Founded in 1991, the facility focuses on conservation education and wildlife rescue, rehabilitation, and release. But when individuals are too injured, too habituated to humans, or too overpopulated in the Greater Kruger area to be relocated to new homes, they become animal ambassadors for the 1,000+ school kids and adults who visit the center each month.
There were hands-on experiences that included holding an African Vulture and petting a Bataleur (a large, colorful Eagle) and their most popular ambassador, a Cheetah. There were free range animals including the deer-like Sable, Hyrax (which look like oversized guinea pigs), and an adorable 6-week-old orphaned White Rhino.
There were also close-up viewings of Lion, Leopard, and African Wild Dog feedings. But their famous resident Honey Badger, Steffle, almost managed to steal the show with his outgoing personality and endless curiosity.
We ended the day with a sunset game drive in a local private game reserve. We won’t mention its name, because the highlight included a dozen endangered White Rhino, whose horns had all been sawed off to deter poachers.
We were also rewarded with close-up sightings of a female Cheetah, Black-Backed Jackal, Nyala (a large, striped antelope species), and a huge herd of Cape Buffalo heading down to the watering hole in a cloud of dust just before the sun set over the horizon.
Today we took a break from learning about South African wildlife conservation in favor of an all-day excursion along the Panorama Route. This scenic drive took us through the beautiful Blyde River Canyon, the world’s largest “green canyon.”
It was fascinating to see the transition in landscape as we made our way up and into the Drakensberg Mountains, as the dry earth and bare trees of the lowveld gave way to dynamic rock formations and lush subtropical foliage.
Popular landmarks such as Three Rondavels, God’s Window, Wonder View, and The Pinnacle provided breathtaking viewpoints of the verdant valleys stretching out below us.
But our favorite stop was Bourke’s Luck Potholes, where centuries of river activity have carved out a dramatic series of natural rock formations, waterfalls and pools. This was definitely one of the best selfie spots on our itinerary, and nearly everyone in our group took advantage of the opportunity.
Today’s drive to another private game reserve near Hoedspruit was shockingly cold: Winter temperatures here can get down into the low 40s, and the wind chill made it feel closer to freezing.
But the sun peeking over the horizon gradually warmed us, as did early morning sightings of Nyala, Impalas and Bushbucks in the bush.
We finally got our first view of a Lion in the wild. Conraad spotted this beauty about 75 yards away on a hillside overlooking the valley in which we were driving. Based on her behavior, he surmised that she had recently given birth to cubs, and was using the strategic location to keep a watch out for predators.
As the day grew warmer, the wildlife came out in droves, offering excellent photo opportunities. Colorful birds such as the Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill, Pied Kingfisher, and the African Harrier Hawk sunned themselves on tree branches. Crocodiles and Hippos emerged to do the same on the riverbank. A male/female pair of Giraffes munched leaves from an Acacia tree.
But our best sighting of the day was also one of our last. As Conraad attempted to track elusive Elephants, we stumbled upon a Black Rhinoceros, one of less than 3,000 left in the wild. This critically endangered species has seen a dramatic population decline in recent years due to the rise in poaching, as rhino horns are valued at up to $45,000 a pound on the black market.
Though clearly cautious of our presence, this majestic male watched us from about 100 feet away for over 30 minutes. After seeing so many de-horned rhino a few days ago, it was a truly special moment to see this rare species with its defining features still intact!
Today’s visit to Seeds of Light’s Ekurhuleni Center was easily among the highlights of our trip thus far.
Envisioned by retired nurse Talitha Mthethwa in 2010 and finished in 2012, Ekurhuleni was designed to help the many children in her community who were orphaned due to AIDS, or who were extremely vulnerable due to other issues in their lives. The center provides a place for these kids to learn, eat, get free healthcare, and play after school and on weekends.
It was an overwhelming emotional experience to spend our Saturday morning with the kids, playing simple games that taught them English, geography and wildlife conservation. My daughter loved drawing and coloring with them, while some of the boys in our group got a kick out of playing soccer and “Grandma” Judy enjoyed dancing with them.
As a music lover, I also enjoyed spending the afternoon at Nyani Cultural Village, which is part of Hoedspruit’s Amafu Forest Lodge.
This is a great place to learn a little about South African history while getting a taste of traditional Shangaan culture. In an hour-long show filled with singing, dancing, drumming and colorful costumes, their rousing performance traced the country’s past, from the original San bushmen and the southern migration of the Bantu people to the Boer invasion.
The kids in our group LOVED the post-show interactive tour of the village, which included activities such as stick-fighting and horn-blowing as well as a mock traditional wedding ceremony.
Our last day in Rukiya Camp proved bittersweet. Bitter because it was difficult to say goodbye to this pristine slice of South African paradise. But also sweet because the relaxed schedule allowed for plenty of downtime before packing our bags for the next day’s journey.
The highlight of the day was a final safari drive through Wild Rivers Nature Reserve, during which we collected the camera trap we’d set up back on Day 1. Wildlife sightings along the way were few and far between, but I managed to spot a species of South African wildlife that had never been seen in the nature reserve before: The Caracal, a rarely-seen, mid-sized cat that hunts at night.
Later, back at camp, we learned more about Rhino poaching and conservation and looked at the photos from our camera traps. Over the course of a week, Group 2’s camera snagged shots of Giraffe, Zebra, Bushbuck, Warthog, Impala, and several other species.
I am NOT a morning person. So the fact that I was up, dressed and ready to roll less than 10 minutes after our 4:30AM wake-up call should give you some idea of how excited I was to return to Kruger National Park nearly 16 years after my last visit.
One of the largest game reserves in Africa, Kruger covers over 7,500 square miles. Part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, it’s home to an exceptional array of wildlife, including 517 bird species, 147 species of large mammals, 114 reptile species, and plenty of endangered animals.
Arriving right as the gates opened at 6AM and leaving just before they closed at 5:30PM, we made the most of our day exploring the park, heading south from the Phaladorwa Gate to the Paul Kruger Gate, with stops at several scenic overlooks and camps along the way.
The array of animals we saw in 12 hours was staggering, easily rivaling that of any other park I’ve ever explored. One of our fellow travelers kept a tally, which included Baboons, Giraffes, Zebras, Cafe Buffalo, Dwarf Mongoose, Impala, Crocodiles, Hippos, Bushbucks, Waterbucks, Wildebeests, Jackals, Hyenas, Elephants (nearly 70 of them!), Vultures, and too many other birds to mention.
But there were two exceptional sightings that especially stood out in my mind. In the morning we saw several cars stopped along the road– the universal sign that there’s something worth seeing. It took several minutes to see the massive male Leopard hidden in the brush 75 yards away, and then several minutes more to see the younger, smaller Leopard he seemed to be chasing off.
In the afternoon we stumbled upon of Lionesses, three of which were bloated and sleeping and the fourth of which was greedily feasting on a fresh Buffalo kill. It was fascinating and gory– the sort of thing you typically only see in National Geographic documentaries. And it all happened less than 10 yards from our vehicle, right by the road!
Another 4:30AM wake-up call rose us from our brief slumber at a wilderness lodge near Nelspruit. We were all a bit bleary-eyed as we piled back into the van for the hour-long drive to Care For Wild Africa, a wildlife sanctuary devoted to saving Rhinos and other endangered species from the scourge of poaching.
The frigid morning air (35ºF) had us all bundled up, but we were warmed immediately upon arrival by the opportunity to help with the morning feeding of the cutest baby Rhinos you ever saw. The calfs, all of whom had been orphaned and rescued by Care, sucked greedily at their bottles, easily drinking 2 liters of milk down in less than a minute.
It was an emotional experience, made even moreso by our meeting with founder Petronel Nieuwoudt, who started her career as a Captain in the South Africa police force’s Endangered Species Protection Unit. Patronal, who had the engaging personality of a young Jane Goodall, spoke with passion about the need to protect these incredible animals, and her plans for expanding their compound to become the world’s largest, safest Rhino sanctuary.
After greeting her staff and eating a lovely breakfast, we headed out for the last excursion of our trip– a tour of Care for Wild Africa’s property. We saw some of the other animals they’ve rescued, including a trio of Lions, a pair of Hippos, and several birds of prey.
We also got a chance to see the Rhinos roaming the grounds of their heavily-guarded 300-acre reserve. It was amazing to see the babies we’d fed that morning playing in the field, eagerly running over to the fence for scratches from the volunteers. And it felt good to know that proceeds from Discover Corps’ tours can help conservation NGOs like Care for Wild Africa grow.
As we made our way to the Nelspruit airport for our long flights home, the group grew quiet in reflection upon our South African Wildlife Conservation Experience. Like my first visit to the country, it proved to be a life-changing trip for quite a few of us (including my daughter Allie, who can’t wait to return to Care as a volunteer). I expect the seven kids in our group (ages 7-17) will remember this educational, inspirational journey for many decades to come. –Bret Love; photos by Bret Love and Allie Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.