This past summer I had the opportunity to volunteer in South Africa with an organization called Operation Wallacea. For 4 weeks myself and 5 other undergraduate students from around the world lived in the bush in the Balule Private Game Reserve. Balule is part of the “Greater Kruger” area that forms a continuous conservation area the size of the country of Israel. Kruger National Park is legendary for the biodiversity it hosts and for the natural beauty of its landscape.
Working with Operation Wallacea was an extremely rewarding experience. Being able to directly apply material learned during my studies to conserving this incredible landscape was an unforgettable opportunity. Despite being in South Africa to work on collecting data assessing the impact of elephant overpopulation upon biodiversity, we were awarded with 5 star wildlife viewing opportunities; seeing lions, elephants, giraffes, rhinos and everything else one would expect to see on a safari.
With the prime location of the research camp upon the Olifants River we were able to view the elephants as they came for their daily drink and the 50+ hippos that called our banks home. From the convenience of our dining area we were lucky enough to enjoy the company of a herd of elephants complete with their newborn calves as they foraged and relaxed in the setting sun. These may well be my favourite wildlife experiences but they are by no means my closest…
Our closest and most memorable wildlife experience occurred while collecting population data of various species found in the reserve when without warning an elephant charged our open-top game viewing truck; ramming its head through the passenger side door. Myself and the other five students were sitting on benches temporarily strapped into the bed of the truck and were easily thrown from the vehicle as it was rolled onto its side. Luckily, the elephant gave the six of us just enough time to shelter ourselves beneath the benches before he rolled the truck completely upside-down. As a result the driver, who was not wearing a seatbelt, fell onto the horn, agitating the elephant even further. Unfortunately, the elephant had not finished yet but again completely rolled the vehicle and continued to thrash the truck around before leaving us stranded upside-down as we struggled for over two hours to contact a rescue vehicle.
Miraculously, the terrifying moments when the elephant was attacking our vehicle, during which I doubted we would even survive, not one of us suffered any noteworthy injuries. Despite this near-death experience the trip as a whole was life changing and I would not hesitate to take part in an Operation Wallacea expedition again.