Amber_In_Africa's Travel Journals

Amber_In_Africa Amber Pashon

  • From California, United States
  • Currently in Texas, United States

South Africa

Cheetah Conservation & Game Capture at Umkwali

Umkwali Tented Bush Camp

South Africa South Africa  |  Jun 21, 2011
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 The whole Umkwali experience exceeded my expectations. I expected someone to show me a tame cheetah or maybe see a few animals I have dreamed of seeing from afar. What I got was hands-on tracking and game capture experience. 

My trip to South Africa started with GeoVisions.  I am a single mom who has teenagers almost out of the house – a volunteer project abroad was a great way to travel to another country safely on my own and gave me the chance to meet interesting people from all over the world.  Once I booked with GeoVisions, they connected me to Awesome Travel who handled the 3 day orientation in Johannesburg.  I guess I expected “orientation” to be the boring part - a classroom setting or something similar.  However, it was a very active and wonderful 3 days.  We went all over Johannesburg and Soweto learning about the area and the people.  Lesedi is a place in Johannesburg that teaches about several of the South African tribes with small “villages” showing the houses, how they dress, hearing the language and even some dancing.  We had a buffet lunch at the end of the tour complete with crocodile and ostrich.  (I like the ostrich!)  The Pieterson museum was a heartbreaking lesson about the apartheid government and the uprising in Soweto.  Just walking around the streets of Soweto, we learned that our view of “third world countries” is often skewed by media and assumptions - the reality was warm, friendly people in a beautiful country simply seeking a happy life like every other person in the world.  There are certainly poor areas, but the sense of community is strong and they are always willing to help a neighbor.  Awesome Travel took great care of me, then sent me off to my project in style (the bus I took actually had an attendant and showed a movie – like being on an airplane!)

What can I say about my project at Umkwali other than it was the most amazing and adrenaline filled experience of my life.  The people that run the camp and projects are all excellent teachers and very fun company.  This is an 18,000 acre property with a decent size work staff all run by a few individuals.

Anthony - manages the property and projects.Adam - my main guide during the predator project (Zingela)Elisa - the main guide on the other project working with the horses. (Hanchi)

Emma (Anthony’s wife and mother of their 2 adorable young children) is an amazing person to keep things running at the main house, and the lodge, and still remember every volunteer’s name. 

Getting there was the hardest part – Umkwali pretty much took care of everything I needed after that.  After spending 5 hours on a bus from Johannesburg, then another 3 hours by car, I really knew I had got my wish of getting “away” – this camp is as “away” as it gets!  Then I looked up and saw the most beautiful stars I have even seen in my life.  I could see the Milky Way in clear view.  Adam and Elisa join us for lunch and dinners.  Time at camp is what you make of it and we had a fun – we laughed a lot and since we were all from different countries, our diversity always made for interesting conversations.  At night, it is just us volunteers staying at the tented camp.  They have nice size tents that can sleep 2 people each (10 volunteers max so a nice size group).  No traffic sounds, no airplane sounds, no electric appliance sounds…..just animals, birds, and quiet.  Even the simple moments will be remembered - morning tracking when all the animals are awake and active, laying out reading in the sun after lunch and a shower, and evenings by the braai (that’s a "BBQ pit" for us Americans). 

The tracking experience started on day one and my first cheetah sighting was a rush!  We found the collared cheetah (named Rebecca) shortly after she had killed a steenbok.  We start tracking by going up to the lodge to check the collar signal – it is situated on a hill and has spectacular views.  We tracked her signal in the Land Rover until we got close enough – then it was time to track on foot.  When Adam pointed where she was, I didn’t see her.  Of course, I’m looking far away, but she is under the tree directly in front of us – maybe 30 feet...kind of takes your breath away.  We approached a little closer before sitting down and sat in front of her while she ate.  Slowly, we scooted closer and closer with Adam until we were just about 10 - 12 feet away from this cheetah that was born and raised in the wild!  It is an incredible feeling to be this close to such a magnificent animal and I was lucky to have several opportunities during my stay to do so.

Each day, Adam taught us more about the animals, their tracks, and how to tell things like male/female or how fast they are moving just by looking at a print in the dirt road.  He knew so much about what was on our land right down to the birds, trees, insects, and spiders.  I learned so much from Anthony about the projects, how they began, how they have progressed, and what he wants to build in the future.  I received my first English saddle riding and tacking lesson from Elisa – she loves each of the 10 horses at the stable and knows their personalities well.  There are exotic antelope I’ve only seen on TV (and many I haven’t) - some are very large with impressive horns and learned to identify and record the number of males and females: gemsbok, kudu, impala, roan, sable, tsessebe, springbok, steenbok, eland, hartebeest and waterbuck.  I don’t think I ever tired of seeing wildebeest on the open plains like out of some safari adventure movie or having giraffe look at us like they are just as fascinated and curious about us as we are about them.  Night drives were fun for seeing the nocturnal breeds:  bat eared fox, jackel, spring hare, African wild cat, and bush babies.  (The lesser bush baby is an extremely adorable little primate that hangs out in the trees).  Then there were the more rare daytime sightings of zebra, hyena, and buffalo.  Warthogs were everywhere, but they are skittish so it pays to be on the ready with a camera fast to catch a picture of the so-ugly-they-are-cute-family. 

Kruger Park was a 3 day trip Umkwali organized and well worth it.  It was an opportunity to see some of the mammals we did not have at Umkwali like elephant, rhino, hippo, and lion.  It was also a nice opportunity to see a few of the animals we did have at Umkwali like zebra, but with more photo opportunities since animals at Kruger are quite used to cars (some even seem to love being a star and having their picture taken – pose, pose, pose).  One of my favorite videos was a young female elephant testing out her intimidation skills on us.  Remember “young” is a relative term for an elephant – she was still as big as our van!  But she was very cute getting next to the car, turning to face us, flapping her ears and sounding her trumpet trying to scare us off while Mama watched her from the side.  We also stayed at a very nice cabin at Kruger and enjoyed some luxuries for a couple days such as a long, hot shower and air conditioning! 

Once we were back from Kruger, it was time for game capture.  If you pictured capturing wild animals was simply some guy darting them from a truck or in a helicopter and then dealing with an unconscious animal, you weren’t far off from what I pictured.  However, the reality was a live capture using a boma which is basically an enclosure – the front near the truck has metal sides with the chute leading to the truck and then it extends beyond the metal structure as far and necessary using curtains made of a heavy tarp material.  The tarp “curtains” obviously will not stop a buffalo or giraffe, but to the animal, it is simply a barrier and they generally won’t run into them without knowing if they are solid or not.  Then the whole boma has to be camouflaged enough so the animals can’t see the green tarp curtains when they are coming toward the boma. The first couple days is summed up by “hard work”.  Building a boma takes a whole crew and it is where everyone pays their dues so a volunteer needs to just jump in and help where possible.  Once the capture action starts, it will be well worth whatever you put in. 

When the helicopter is in the air, it’s time for the fun.  The helicopter pilot’s job is to herd animals into the curtained area we have built and hopefully camouflaged enough that the animals don’t see what they are running into until it’s too late.  Once they are in far enough, the helicopter sounds a siren and the first curtain is pulled, keeping the animals from leaving the boma.  The helicopter keeps driving them in until the other curtains are pulled and the animals are in the metal chute area.  Some animals like gemsbok require putting pipes on their horns so they don’t hurt each other during transport and it is a very interesting skill to watch –aiming a plastic tube onto a very large, sharp horn while trying not to get gorged.  Sometimes everything in the process goes smoothly:  helicopter drives in a few animals, sirens sounds, all the curtains close, and the animals make it down the chute and into the truck – ta dah!  Other times, it requires some very crazy guys doing some very crazy things to get the job done:  crazy stunt helicopter flying to get a couple animals in…a curtain getting stuck and the animals trying to run out of the boma or running TOWARD us…men scrambling up a tree to avoid charging buffalo going in the wrong direction.  I was on several jobs during capture and had the opportunity to see and participate in several processes.  Giraffe capture is a challenge – the curtain is up high and the helicopter blows the bottom up so it takes a lot of people to keep the gaps closed – don’t close the gap and you will have a giraffe running straight at you (definitely got a few cuts and scrapes getting that one closed before getting run over).  The crazy guys dealing with these animals are also fun to watch – they will wrestle with wildebeest and stand in front of an angry, head-butting gemsbok with nothing but a thin piece of metal they hold in front of them.

The most amazing moment was probably getting to fly in the helicopter during the gemsbok capture.  Unlike the buffalo, wildebeest, and giraffe, the gemsbok don’t really want to stay together if they are being chased – they will split off from each other and run in different directions.  That is when Donny (our pilot during this capture) has to round them up and get them going in the direction he wants and he is amazing at it.  I don’t know even how to describe that kind of flying – spinning 180 degrees in midair, dropping fast and coming at the animals sideways – one second you are low enough to touch a giraffe and the next second, you are so high up it is hard to see anything on the ground.  It felt like the best rollercoaster ride in the world and I was hooked!  The animals we were after were being stubborn and the wind was changing so I had a very fun and long ride. Seeing the curtains being pulled after the sirens are sounded is pretty cool from the air too – there is a lot of action happening to get those animals safely loaded onto a truck.  I landed in the helicopter at sunset and I was floating on air for hours! 

The whole Umkwali experience exceeded my expectations.  I expected someone to show me a tame cheetah or maybe see a few animals I have dreamed of seeing from afar.  What I got was hands-on tracking and game capture experience.  I was close enough to some very large animals to have to dodge a couple.  I learned a volunteer trip like this was an affordable way to travel abroad, provided safe transportation and accommodations, and I made some great friends I will keep in touch with. The food was healthy and tasty (they even accommodate a vegetarian diet), the water was clean and safe, and everyone on the staff are friendly.  The guides here will teach you as much as you want to learn and let you participate as much as you are willing and able to do.  Just show up everyday with an open mind, ready for anything and you’ll never be disappointed!  

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  • Umkwali Tented Bush Camp

    June 21, 2011
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