Botswana Wildlife Volunteer
What do students do after a Wildlfife course?
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ACS Distance Education
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We waved goodbye to one of our Team Lion members and by lunchtime we’d arrived at the dinky little international airport in Kasane, the nearest town to Chobe National Park and just a hop, skip and jump – relatively speaking - from the Okavango Delta in Namibia. The weather was perfect, the people were friendly and polite, and it all had something of a 50’s feel to it!
Our accommodation was a 10 minute drive – if that – from the airport. It was lovely to have a spacious room with a beautiful bathroom and – joy of joys – adequate tea-making supplies. There were also porters to carry our luggage which, given that I was carrying three years’ worth of my life, was much appreciated.
We readied ourselves for a wildlife fest, with the first thing on the agenda being a game drive in the national park. I was feeling shattered – it turned out I developed a stinking cold whilst in Botswana – but made the effort to get my butt onto the vehicle, and was very glad I did. Chobe is unfenced, the animals can wander in and out at will, and to be perfectly honest I’d only been there 10 minutes before I decided it was a little slice of heaven. There were hordes of animals to be seen, including: elephant, giraffe, buffalo, hippo, impala, some kudu, impala, and - 3 female lions, one of whom looked as though she was being suckled. As usual the “virgin” game drive tourists with us provided endless entertainment, with one insisting that the lionesses were gearing up to hunt the two or three giraffe who were nonchalantly browsing nearby. Well – the lionesses showed absolutely no sign of interest in the giraffe and ambled past them in plain sight without taking the slightest bit of notice of them. Hunting mode? – I don’t think so!
The other awesome thing about Chobe is that it’s on a river, which gave me the opportunity to spot lots of water birds that I hadn’t had the chance to see before. To my species list I added the African Spoonbill, the open-beaked stork, the yellow-billed stork, the great egret, small egret and yellow-billed egret, coucals, wattled lapwings and two pairs of breeding fish eagles…… as well as white-faced ducks and fulvous whistling ducks, black-winged stilts, and either francolins or spurfowls - my uncertainty being due to the fact of the guide not stopping long enough to see and identify them for us. There were also masses of helmeted guinea-fowl, white fronted bee-eaters and I think I even saw a tropical boubou.
Dinner and breakfast were included and thankfully there were a lot of vegan choices. Not necessarily a good thing as I came away from Chobe in dire need of a diet and exercise plan! I was glad we weren’t travelling with a large groupas, despite my many early starts, I’m not really a morning person and was quite happy to enjoy a breakfast not burdened by hordes of cackling tourists.
It was very strange not to be getting up at the crack of dawn or earlier and either be on the move, or be working like an idiot. However the change was quite welcome and after a leisurely breakfast the next morning, we whiled away the time until our afternoon boat cruise on the river by wandering along the riverbank or watching the banded mongoose, warthogs and vervet monkeys playing in front of our room. On our morning ramble I saw yet more new bird species – well, new to me, at least – including what I think was a malachite kingfisher, a stunning electric blue kingfisher which is ridiculously tiny yet is not the smallest of the kingfisher family; a grey-headed shrike and what I think was a buffy Pipit – one of the LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobbies) that can be so tricky to identify. I also spent quite some time watching an African darter fishing, and observed a green-backed heron as it went about its business.
The boat cruise in the afternoon was amazing, we were able to get quite close to groups of buffalo and hippo, and a highlight for me was watching two groups of elephant cross part of the river to get to an island in the middle. The babies amongst them were protected and helped where it was needed, and one elephant even turned back to pick up a couple of stragglers who were slower than the rest and seemed to lack confidence in getting into the water. It was an act of caring that I’ll never forget, and I like to think the “rescuer” provided emotional support while encouraging the stragglers to swim for the island.
Of course there were many other animals to be seen at closer quarters from the boat, with my favourite antelope, the waterbuck, among them, as well as red lechwe – another smaller antelope species - and crocs. Again there were many new bird species to add to my ever growing list, including the African jacana, grey headed gulls, squacco herons, glossy ibis, knob-headed geese and spur-winged geese. The riverbanks we glided past were full of nests with breeding pairs of pied kingfishers. I’d only ever seen these birds at a distance before and was over the moon to see so many of them so close up. The cruise ended with a stunning sunset – of which I unfortunately didn’t get many photos since I’d abused the camera batteries by taking so much video footage of the elephants.
That night we heard odd sounds so took a wander along the path by the river as far as we could - to find that the noise emanated from the hippo herds on the islands. Whilst we couldn’t see them we could certainly hear them and whatever the reason for the calls, they kept it up for quite some hours.
To remedy the alien feeling of not getting up and doing, we were up at the crack of dawn on our last day in Chobe to go on a game drive. This turned out to be well worth the trouble as I finally got to see a leopard in the wild – I can finally say I’ve seen the Big 5, and not in a zoo or in rehab! I can’t tell you why it made me so happy that I burst into tears. Not only did we see the leopard, she went off into the bush and we were privileged to see her cub clamber down from a tree to meet her. What I didn’t like about it was how the tour guide got us close to her though. There she was, minding her own business ambling along one of the tracks, and all of a sudden 5 or 6 vehicles descend on her and follow her far too closely. He also did the unthinkable and drove off the track when she veered into the bush – all for the sake of people getting photos. Me, I didn’t take a single one – I was just happy to see her – but I hated that the poor girl was harassed in that manner for the sake of a photo. While I enjoyed the game drives and the opportunity to see wildlife I wouldn’t otherwise have seen, I have more than a suspicion that it’s not really ethical to harass some of these animals the way tour guides and tourists alike do.
There weren’t many animals out at that time of morning – it was bitter cold. My other “find” was a slender mongoose, which I hadn’t seen before. As we were finishing up, there were a couple of bird species I would really have liked to have identified but that didn’t happen – as usual the guide was roaring off before he’d even properly slowed down, and by that stage my cold had taken such a strong foothold that I couldn’t yell out for him to stop. ...
Back at the lodge I watched a troop of about 50 banded mongoose playing on the lawn. My travelling companion decided to do another game drive in the afternoon but since I was feeling pretty woozy by then, I went to bed to try to knock the cold on the head. The hippo were in fine fettle again that night and we spent a long time after dinner just listening to them.
Chobe is a very special place and I’m told the Okavango is even more spectacular. I guess that means I’m going to have to make it to Namibia one day…
The next day saw my very last day in Africa – a somewhat bittersweet feeling, especially since I had no idea how long it would be before I got back there. I found myself wondering where three years had gone and yet, when I looked back on all that I’d done during that time, I realised it wasn’t as short as it seemed. I’d learned a lot about the dodgier side of the wildlife “industry”, met some inspiring people, and worked closely with a lot of awesome wildlife. My heart was heavy and I shed tears as we walked out onto the tarmac to get on a plane out of Botswana and connect with our flight out of Africa. I couldn’t help but feel that I was leaving home all over again and hated that I was going. Africa is one of those places that – hackneyed as the phrase is – gets under your skin and love it or hate it, once you’ve been there, you’re never quite the same again.
But life must go on, and to assuage the feeling of loss in leaving Africa, I had adventures to look forward to in the UK. I might not be working with lions or antelope, but I was determined to learn as much as I could about species I’d never worked with before, and I was going to spend a year doing it.
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