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Volunteers' Stories



Jennifer Perkes
Travellers' Managing Director

My Early Morning Search for Wild Dog in Hluhluwe-Umfolozi  Game Reserve, South Africa

A trip to Hluhluwe-Umfolozi to visit Travellers volunteers and to experience the Game Reserve Conservation project.

Jan (pronounced Yun, the researcher in charge of Travellers volunteers on their project), Mark Saunders and John Michell (two volunteers on their project) were going out on a morning field trip to monitor two packs of wild dogs that they had been researching to ascertain their impact on the local species. Phil Perkes (Travellers Director), Sam Terblanche (Travellers KZN Project Co-ordinator) and her 6-year-old boy, and I were invited to join them - and we were thrilled to bits!

The first shock to my system was having to get up at 4.00 in the morning! I'm a 'night person' and early morning is not something I'm familiar with. However, I dragged myself out of bed ("why on earth am I doing this??!!"), sleepily downed about 3 cups of coffee ("I'm going to pay for all this liquid, I just know it!") and crawled into the 4x4 vehicle ,,, this had better be good.

It was brilliant.

A game reserve in the first light of day is nothing short of magical. This is the time that the animals come out to feed and drink, when it's still relatively cool and fresh. Birds twitter, crickets and cicadas fill the air with waves of sound that increase and decrease as you pass - and you feel as though you're the only person on earth. For true harmony with nature, you can't beat this.

Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Reserve is huge and lush, with rolling hills and mountains. It is certainly one of the most beautiful game parks I've been in. There are some dirt roads running through it and the animals don't appear wary of them - they graze wherever they feel like it, including the verges, and they cross the roads as though they were just another plain.

We drove around to the places where the three guys thought the wild dog pack would be. Every now and then we'd stop while they hopped out the car and used telemetry equipment to try and track the pack.

I was amazed at how much our volunteers, Mark and John, had learned in the time they'd been there. They kept up a constant flow of information about the pack we were tracking and the reasons why it was necessary to monitor them. Apparently the dogs, being predators, were having quite an impact on the local game and it was important to measure this to see whether they ought to be relocated or not.

I think Jan, the project leader, is an expert on everything! There wasn't a question he couldn't answer and the facts he came out with were fascinating. All the while we were trying to track the wild dogs, he would drive for a while then suddenly slam on the brakes and point to an animal or bird and tell us all about its characteristics, habits, and its place in the overall ecosystem.
We saw everything imaginable, from buck through to warthog, to rhino and tortoises. And birds I've never even heard of!

Jan's also one of the nicest people I've met. He's that rare combination of enthusiastic expert, nice guy, authority figure ... and great fun to be with. His love of nature and animals is infectious and you find yourself becoming fascinated by even the smallest insects, just because his knowledge and enthusiasm opens your mind to the important place these little bugs play in the overall ecosystem. Suddenly you love the little creatures!

We weren't having much luck tracking the wild dogs and finally ended up on one of the highest peaks in the Reserve where, hopefully, we'd get a telemetry reading on them. The views out over the Reserve were stunning. Here and there in the distance we saw herds of buffalo, zebra, buck and the occasional rhino.

By this time I was in heaven and not concerned in the slightest about finding the pack - there was so much to see - but Jan, Mark and John were obviously disappointed because they wanted to add to their database of knowledge about the animals. However, for them there was always tomorrow - me, I was leaving later that day and I was green with jealousy that Mark and John still had a few weeks left in this paradise.

We never did find the wild dog pack. Apparently, according to Jan, they'd crossed a ridge into a valley that was a bit too far to get to that morning. We left the mountain-top and started making our way back to camp.

... And then we came across the lions. Three females, right in front of us as we turned a corner.

"One-Eye", as she's called because she's lost an eye, is collared so that researchers can monitor her. The other two were apparently her cubs - and they were huge! They strolled across the road nonchalantly, with dignified disdain of our presence.

From our position we could see a small herd of buffalo in a water-hole not more than 50 or 75 yards away on the other side of the bush. The lions hadn't seen them, but Jan said he thought they may have smelt the buffs, or sensed their presence, because they were heading towards the waterhole.
I admit that I kept my fingers crossed that the lions weren't heading for the buffalo - the last thing I wanted to see was an attack and a killing. I know that animals must kill each other for food ... but I didn't want to actually watch it happening.

Jan, Mark and John got out notebooks and were furiously making notes about the sighting, jotting down the date, time and position, and the composition of the small pride. It all formed part of the database of information on the animals in the Park and would add a little to their knowledge.
Mark and John were torn between writing down notes and taking photographs for the family albums! They were just as excited as we were about the sighting - probably more so because of their greater knowledge of the park and the research.

Word must have got around by bush telegraph because pretty soon quite a few safari vehicles filled with tourists showed, but this didn't phase the lions one iota.

One important thing about working on a project in a Game Park is that you get to see things and go to areas that no-one else is allowed to.

I actually felt quite sorry for the tourists (and a bit superior!), because they were merely visitors and we were part of the on-site working team. Well, I reckon I'm allowed a little smug superiority every now and then!
And then, just to make life even better, we came across a waterhole shared by two large herds of rhinos and buffaloes when we were on our way out of the Game Park. There was even a baby rhino among them.

Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve was an incredible experience, one I'll never forget. How lucky can I get to have experienced that. I must have have done something really good in a past life! And our volunteers get to do this nearly every day - I'm so envious I think I could easily get to hate them.

Jan, Mark, John - thanks for the outstanding experience - you were right, it was well worth getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning for. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. And if any of you ever want to swap your job for mine behind a desk, I'm more than willing ...!!

More Information about your Trip with Travellers

List of ALL PROJECTS in South Africa

John Michell (left) and
Mark Saunders (right) relaxing
in the accommodation complex

Jan trying to track the wild dog pack
using telemetry. He walks through the bush bare feet !!





Nonchalantly crossing the road, ignoring the safaris vehicles in the background. You can see the shadow of our car in the bottom of the picture - showing you how close we were to the lions!