Becoming a volunteer in the Conservation Program with Nkonzo was by far the most exhilarating and influential time of my life. My time with them started when I met members of their team and fellow volunteers at the bus stop in Mossel Bay where we were being picked up. It was my first time traveling by myself on international soil, needless to say; I was a bit nervous and apprehensive. But I quickly learned that my fears were totally unnecessary; we were picked up by Colleen who gave us a tour of the small town and made sure we were settled into our accommodation for the first two nights. She filled us in on the basics of the town, like where the good burgers were and everyone at the backpackers was very friendly.
The next day we had orientation and introductions, but it wasn’t your typical lecture room orientation. Instead of sitting at chairs and tables in a cramped room we all walked down together to the point where we sat next to a bay and were even able to see a pod of dolphins. This is when more members of the team told us their histories and about the training and projects we would be assisting with. I think the best part here was that the whole morning was more of a conversation or a discussion between all of us as we asked questions and got to know each other better. In the afternoon on the same day we were introduced to our own individual projects. In our time with Nkonzo they suggested that we theoretically design our own observational research project. This way we would know the exact processes involved in designing a project, collecting and analyzing data, and doing a write up. Though we didn’t collect data for the projects we designed we had access to data sets that resembled the data we would have collected and used it or a mock analysis.
The next day we were picked up early to finally see the reserve and the training camp where we would be spending the majority of our time. I was going to be a volunteer for two months; this was where I was going to be spending a lot of time, and I couldn’t wait! My fist impression of the reserve was just, wow. There was so much open space, the reserve was 11,000 hectare (or 28,000 acres in my American brain) and there was nothing but wildlife, free, uncontrolled wildlife.
It took more than half an hour to reach camp once we entered the reserve, then we had our first view of our home away from home, in the middle of the African bush. Camp was basic and rustic and I loved it. There was no electricity, the swimming pool was a dam just below camp, and giraffes were walking across a nearby ridge. I knew I was going to love this.
For the next four weeks we woke up to the sound of the hadeda ibis over the dam and the sun rise behind the mountains. We were trained in approach methods and worked on multiple studies, one of the amazing parts of this opportunity was that you weren’t ONLY there for the experience and to see wildlife in its natural element (although that was definitely amazing) but we were doing actual good in terms of conservation. The projects we were working on were designed to improve animal welfare and better understand them so that we as humans were better equipped to coexist without harming them. For me, that was a big deal, we were not tourists, we were volunteers in the conservation industry and were making a deal difference.
There were so many sightings and amazing experiences I had in two months that I could never recount all of them. The one that will always stand out the most to me though, was my first, the first sighting I had of a large wild animal in Africa. On the first training session we had we were on mission white rhino. I remember tracking a mating pair for hours as they had a very large home range. They were being quite elusive and we spent the better part of the day searching for them. We finally caught a break as we searched the last possible area of their home range. We were able to spend time with them as they grazed on the open plains as the sun was setting. For me, it was the most memorable experience of my life and I couldn’t wait for even more.
My time with Nkonzo taught me more than I could have ever imagined. Though we learned a lot about area specific research and wildlife, the overall methods and theories were ones that I continued to use in the rest of my university career and put me ahead when I began looking for jobs. The experience, skills, and overall knowledge that I acquired with Nkonzo were the most influential part of my successfully obtaining my dream job.
Nkonzo Conservation Intern
June, July 2014