This has been quite an intense summer so far... I had a week at home before I went to South Africa for three weeks. Came back on Thursday, at U of I on Sunday, started classes and work on Monday. I could talk plenty about what's happened post-Africa, or I could share my experiences and include lots of pictures :-)
Africa was amazing, of course. Everything was so raw and real... all of the wildlife we saw was right there, not separated from us through a TV screen or textbook (except, perhaps, for our camera lenses). I was surprised at how large lions are - they're huge, bigger than a person. Elephants, too, took me by surprise at the variance in what I could call personality; some were afraid of our Land Rover, others ambivalent, some easily angered, and others curious
We spent the first week camping in Phelwana game lodge, a reserve with no large predatory animals. This served as a good introduction to Africa, as I doubt any of us would have been able to fall asleep with the knowledge that something could eat us during the night. We camped next to a lake with hippos, which was very interesting. Hippos are the most dangerous animal in Africa because they are very protective of their young and are territorial. Many unfortunate boaters get killed each year by passing by too closely. Looking at the hippos, though, it was hard to see them as being dangerous - they were just two eyes barely above the water that stared at us constantly, wondering what we were doing on the grass they liked to eat. Every now and then one would raise its head out of the water and we saw how truly huge they are. Their calls to one another sound like a scary mix of horse followed by really deep laughter. The picture on the right is when one wandered to a shallow part of the lake and was eyeing us.
We drove to an animal rehabilitation center called Moholoholo on one of the first days of the trip. This was one of the best days of my life, probably... the amount of wildlife we saw up close and even got to touch was incredible. I'll just let the photos do the talking for now:
And finally, 8-week old cheetah cubs. Absolutely adorable. Cubs have the "mohawk" but lose it at adolescence, I think.
We went to Kruger National Park the next day, a heavy tourist area but still awesome. The park is ~3600 km^2 and full of wildlife. Visitors are not allowed to leave their cars but we still saw and learned a lot. The next few days were spent primarily in Phelwana, doing walks around the area and learning about tracks that animals make in the sand. In the second half of the trip, we stayed at Sabi Sands, a private game reserve next to Kruger. The lodge we stayed at was in the middle of the reserve... we literally drove for 20 minutes after going through the gate before we reached the campground. The lodge has several bungalos, or one-room houses with a bathroom, and our group divided into 2's and 3's and each took one. A typical day at Sabi Sands included waking up at 6am and leaving for a 4-hour drive in a specially-designed Land Rover around the reserve. One person would have to sit on the seat up front with nothing but a small handle on the right to hold onto and a small metal plate for his or her feet. This was pretty intimidating, given the fact that we saw lions, elephants attempting to charge us, hyenas, and more. I was up front on a night drive (holding on with my right hand and in my left shining a spotlight) when we saw a leopard. We stopped the LR ahead of the leopard and turned towards it as it made its way to us... when it got to within ten feet of the front of the LR, it looked me in the eye. I could tell this animal has such strength and no fear of anything. It gave new meaning to the phrase "piercing glare," hah.
The trip has given me a really strong desire to do something with conservation in the future. After seeing such beautiful wildlife and environment, it's hard to ignore the world's biodiversity problems. I want to help somehow, in any way I can. Climate change, human population growth, habitat destruction, and more threaten to ruin not only the animals on this planet but us as well. If we don't work to keep Earth clean and manage our impact on it, we may lose the only home we have.
IBH students travel the world, publish research papers, and do all sorts of amazing things