We have an Earthwatch team of 14 volunteers staying in Wilderness Camp at the moment. They are doing a fantastic job of helping us to meet our research aims! This group is extra special because eight of the participants are associated with the Los Angeles Zoo. Linda Duttenhaver has been providing an incredible opportunity for student volunteers, zoo magnet students and supervising staff from the zoo to join Earthwatch teams for several years. Through this grant, zoo volunteers and students have joined Earthwatch teams all over the world from Thailand to the Amazon and now South Africa! This opportunity gives young people who have a passion for wildlife the chance to experience field research and ecology first hand. Many of the 17 and 18-year-old participants are planning to study in related fields such as veterinary sciences at university.
The six student volunteers from Los Angeles Zoo have each written a short paragraph about their experiences helping the Primate and Predator Project at Lajuma Research Centre. Thank you to Linda Duttenhaver, GLAZA, the Los Angeles Zoo and the Earthwatch Institute for providing this incredible experience.
The drive to Lajuma started to eventually become very rural. In the distance the shadows of the Soutspansberg Mountains began to emerge. Once we reached their base, it was like entering a different world. One of the first things I noticed was how red the earth was. Terra cotta red, like the deepest part of the sunset was ground up and sprinkled across the surface. There is a perfect balance of life and death here. While you see the green all around you also see the brown; a complete balance. At the camp, you witness one of the most amazing view you will ever see. Now as I sit with my back against the rocks, I look out over onto the surrounding peaks. Its dusk and a dusting of pink skim their tips; gently bleeding with the pale blue of the sky until a sherbet of colour fills the air. The cliffs themselves are a muddled collection of green, brown, and red. Past the mountains are the flatlands that make up this beautiful part of Africa. Overall, the place is dreamy. Free from the distractions of life, you can get lost in its beauty. I feel like nature sighs in peace here; completely content to stay in this quiet nook of the planet. And I agree.
“Adventure is out there” they say, and it truly is but you cannot say it until you have experienced it. South Africa is the epitome of excitement and adventure. Though the 24 hour plane ride here was a struggle, the experience and ties I have made will certainly aid me with my endeavours in the future. The workers here at wilderness camp have made us feel at home with friendly smiles, helping hands, and mouth watering meals that make all of us begging for more after licking clean one’s plate. And I have to say, after a day packed with activities such as hiking, samango monkey tracking, camera trapping, etc. I am glad to come back “home” to Kyle, our chef’s, cooking. It is safe to say that time flies by each and every day and we always seem to question why the day must be so short.
The activities that we have done were exciting and definitely unforgettable but every experience is amplified when you are spending it with the right kind of people. As this trip winds down, I am sad to say goodbye to such a breathtaking place and its people. Although goodbyes are inevitable, the one thing we don’t have to leave behind is our memories we have made and shared; but I guess goodbye also means hello: hi mom and dad ☺.
There’s something about the feeling of crisp mountain air rushing through my lungs and the reassuring thud of my boots against the wild trails of South Africa that makes the experience all the more surreal. As we traverse wide valleys and steep slopes on a 10 mile hike out to check a camera trap designated “camera 13”, the terrain changes drastically changes within minutes. Guided by two Primate and Predator Project (PPP) assistants, we scaled cliff faces like Klipspringers and roamed across grass fields reminiscent of the golden waves of grain in the Midwestern United States, minus the thorny, prickly plants we encounter every other step. One particular cliff was both steep and covered in dense vegetation, and by the time we reached the top we were all out of breath and covered in brambles. As we reached the top with our thigh muscles protesting in agony, we were presented with a breathtaking view of the valley below us and the silhouette of the Soutpansberg Mountains looming in the distance. A short water break provided us with the opportunity to soak in the feeling of invincibility. We were on top of the world.
Continuing down the other side of the mountain, we entered an environment completely different from the one we had just left behind. While the hike from camp up the mountain had mostly consisted of meandering through thick forests and crossing a stream multiple times, the flipside of the mountain had us cutting through a valley of tall grasses and a sparse dotting of small shrubs and trees. Surrounded on all sides by mountains and Mount Lajuma looming in the distance to our right, we felt a sense of serenity and tranquillity, forgetting for just a minute about our aching feet and sore muscles. As we continued onwards over a small hill, the landscape was instantly transformed into head-height shrubs blanketing the area. We followed an almost invisible trail carefully swatting thorny branches and leaves away from our faces. At one point, I turned back to check and see if Kyla was still behind me and was quite surprised to see that she had seemingly vanished into thin air. A few seconds later, she emerged from the thicket, pushing through plants taller than my head. Eventually, we made our way to camera 13, and the research assistants, Shannon and Tessa took us to see some cave paintings originally made by bush men thousands of years ago. Certain paintings were a bit harder to decipher until Shannon pointed them out, but the longer we stared at them, the more the depictions of animals and people started to take shape. Shannon was kind enough to explain to us the meaning of some of the paintings, like how the giraffes and elephants were symbolic of rain. The rest of the way back was relatively uneventful, barring the jelly legs and sore feet. All in all, it was a fantastic day full incredible views and unforgettable experiences.
After a long gruelling plane rides and a bumpy car ride, we finally touched ground in Lajuma, a zoologist’s paradise hidden deep in the Soutpansberg Mountains. The city landscape had been transformed into a land of hopping vervet monkeys, wattling guinea fowl, and diverse vegetation the deep brick red soil. Upon arrival at the Lajuma Research Centre, we were welcomed by genuine people, a lovely place to stay and day jam packed with fascinating, productive, and educational activities. These activities include collecting data from the highflying samango monkeys, hiking through the beautiful terrain to check on the camera traps, and analyzing the vegetation to understand the behaviour of several species of animals. After we have completed our exhausting activities, we are welcomed with warm, homemade meals made by our personal chef, Kyle. As our trip is winding down, I am making the most out of every experience here in South Africa. We can’t wait to go back and apply everything that I have learned here in Lajuma to my life in years to come.
As young adults, we are continually surrounded by hundreds of decisions that could change the path of our lives. The 6 of us chose to apply for a spot to go to an Earthwatch expedition. Then we got a once in a life time opportunity to come to South Africa! Everyday we are working alongside research assistants and students’, getting a first hand experience on what real research is. I can’t talk for my fellow teammates, but I know for a fact that the skills and knowledge we acquire on this trip will be useful for our future educational careers. Back at home, we are surrounded by the drama of daily life. Here none of that matters. Being surrounded by the samango monkeys and baboons helps me escape into my own world and be carefree for once. I’ve never been surrounded by so many people with different accents. There are so many lifestyles and cultural views, that I am inspired to continue traveling and see the world especially after meeting the research assistants and seeing how diverse and well traveled they are, the way they are educated and experienced college, their whole system seems easy and makes me consider finishing school outside of the country. As our day of departure draws near, I am not ready to say goodbye to all the different people, amazing food, the research, and the nature that Africa offers. As we get close to leaving Africa, I am more excited than ever to use the skills that I have acquired and apply it to my first year in college.
I honestly never thought I would ever go on a trip to Africa. Though I had travelled to Europe and South America many times, and almost to Asia at one point, I had never even thought about Africa. And here I am in South Africa. Now I find myself in the Soutpansberg Mountains with my seven companions, as well as six other individuals from around the world that I now call friends. I find myself in awe from the beauty of this place and the people who work here: the culture and history of the people that live here and of course, the amazing food. Ten days have flown by and what can I say? Time flies when you are having fun! Each day brings new experiences, challenges to overcome, and hundreds of activities such as hikes, camera trapping checks, and building baboon and leopard traps. I have learned so much about this place and about myself on this trip, and each day brings me a new surprise. The cultural diversity here in South Africa, and within this tight-knit group of people, never ceases to astound me. As this trip winds down to an end, I am sad to say that there are less than four days left, but I am extremely excited to share my experiences with all of my friends and family.