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My African Experience

by John Worthington-Hill

Stepping off the plane onto African soil after what seemed like endless airports and aeroplanes is one of the most memorable moments of my life. Like many people, I always wondered what Africa was really like, compared to the TV screen version. It certainly does not disappoint. My African adventure consisted of one month at a world renowned Reptile Park, then another at the Private Game Farm. Iím not sure how I managed to stuff so many amazing memories into two months!

South Africa is one of the best places in the world to work with and learn about reptiles. The Reptile Park is a must for anyone passionate about reptiles and creepy crawlies or simply interested in learning more about them. The Project leader and the parks two curators really know their stuff, so even if youíre not too hot on reptile knowledge, you soon will be. The park plays a very important role in reptile conservation and education, both locally and on a much larger Ďscaleí (no pun intended). Volunteering is an amazing opportunity to get involved.

I loved being part of the team at the Reptile Park and volunteers get stuck in with all aspects of the parks work. I particularly enjoyed responding to the Ďcall-outsí and piling into the pick-up with the other volunteers on rescue missions. I think that one of the most thrilling aspects of work at the park is its unpredictability. On some days we were responding to maybe three or four call outs, and volunteers take it in turns to make the captures. Itís a real buzz! Two rescues which I was involved with resulted in saving the lives of two 4m rock pythons and up to a hundred eggs. Encounters with such impressive wild animals really stick in your mind! Of course, a good camera is a must-have item and I soon learned to always have it to hand.

There is always work to be getting on with at the park. The day usually starts with a check of all enclosures. The animals need to be removed from their enclosures so that they can be cleaned. This means volunteers are constantly practicing their handling techniques. When you feel confident enough and the curators are happy with your handling, volunteers have the opportunity to perform snake demonstrations and spider/scorpion handling sessions with the public, including school groups. The first couple of times, it is really nerve-racking, but an amazing experience when you have done it. It is nice to think that most of the people you talk to have probably never been so close to these animals. Unfortunately, reptiles are persecuted all over the world and are often very misunderstood. Itís a brilliant feeling to have influenced peopleís perceptions of these animals and to have helped with their on-going conservation.

Volunteers quickly become very good friends with each other and the parkís staff. I was sad to leave as I had such an amazing experience, met some wonderful people (who I am still in contact with now) and learnt so much. But I was also looking forward to my next month at the Private Game Farm. With Hoedspruit being such a small and intimate town, I had already met one of the project leaders of the Private Game Farm.

The bellowing lions succeeded in making my first night at the Game Farm a rather sleepless one. What an introduction to life in the bush! The daily morning bushwalks were a real highlight of my time at the game farm.

Exploring the reserve with the project leaders and learning to identify the millions of different plants and animal species was the perfect way to start the day. Followed by lectures and practical reserve management, this was a brilliant introduction to Africa and the work of reserves. Living in the bush was an amazing and often surreal experience. I was lucky enough to witness the transformation after the rains. Suddenly the arid landscape burst into a magnificent, lush green Africa; and with rain came the wildlife. We were often visited by wandering bull elephants just metres from the camp fence and could spend hours on the watch tower spying on the zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, buffalo, warthog and many more visitors to the water holes. Nothing compares to seeing these magnificent animals in their natural environment.

The game farm provided an ideal base to explore the surrounding area and go on the various excursions (definitely save some money for these!), or to escape the mid-day heat in the swimming pool. A few of the other volunteers and I often rented a car from Hoedspruit and went exploring. Most weekends we were off to Kruger National Park, a breath-taking reserve definitely worth a few visits. Driving back in the evening on one occasion, we saw 18 snakes on the road, an indication of how much wildlife there is in this area!

Volunteers are regarded as members of the family and it is an amazing, homely atmosphere on the Game Farm. Somehow, I managed to miss my flight home, but Linda (the Kameleon Adventures manager) and the owners of the Private Game Farm were very supportive and helpful. I managed to get on the next flight home without too much trouble, although I wasnít complaining about the extra week in Africa.

For me, this was a life-changing and inspiring experience. For anyone thinking about exploring Africa, my advice would be to get out there and have the time of your life. Africa is a simply mind-blowing place and unforgettable experiences are guaranteed!

John Worthington-Hill
United Kingdom

Examining the left-overs of a lion kill during a bush walk. These remains attract other carnivores and vultures.