• Tom

My African Impact: Memoirs of an African Internship

With all of the exciting developments we have had here at Forage & Folklore Tours – from projects we have publicly shared to ones that are still going on behind the scenes – I have been reflecting a lot lately on my journey so far searching for a career in conservation. Without going too far back and without making this article too long, I felt it would be nice to share stories from arguably the most significant chapter of my life which influenced everything about where I am today. I have had many influences, experiences and opportunities to help develop and shape a career focused on wildlife & habitat conservation, but what sticks out most out of all of them is my time spent in South Africa with the organization, African Impact.

In 2016 I decided that my work as a nurse in Canada was not as aligned with my personal values as I had believed it would be when I was starting my career. After some careful consideration and deep contemplation, I decided that it would be best for me to put my efforts into shifting career paths and do what was necessary to make the change. I had consulted with friends and colleagues about how to do this. Towards the end of the year, I had decided that I would either go back to school to complete another post-secondary degree qualification, or I would apply to go to Africa – my dream destination – and volunteer on a conservation project to get experience and make connections with the people directly involved in the work I had always wanted to do. It came down to a last-minute decision (I had even applied for an exciting college program, got accept and even looked at a new apartment in the town I would have had to move to!) but I decided that going to Africa was the right choice. And I stand by that today.

I ended up going to South Africa twice. The first time I went, I was only able to go for two weeks, but I decided within the first few days there that I would pursue one of the internship opportunities that African Impact offered. Only about half a year later, I returned to South Africa for a full three-month internship.

During my time in Africa, I made fabulous connections with amazing people from all over the world, of all different ages, talents, cultures and passions. This is where I met Ashley. This is where I develop my skills as a tour guide. This is where I was really shown just how many avenues there are to building a career in a part of your life that is significant to you. When I was first considering writing about my experiences with African Impact, I thought I would simply retell the story and give a review of the amazing work and activities I was able to participate in. But instead, I have decided I would rather present to you excerpts from my journal that Ashley gave to me as a parting gift just before I flew out of Heathrow Airport. She told me it would be important to write down my experiences of daily life during my time there, and she was absolutely right. I will now share with you some of my most favourite memories, and I highly encourage everyone to check out the weblink posted below this article and consider volunteering with African Impact after you read this.

March 24, 2018 – 0457 (EST) Currently on flight Air Canada 858 to London, Heathrow. I will be landing in approximately an hour and a half. The flight has gone by quickly, however I have been quite uncomfortable with some indigestion for most of it. The menu for the in-flight meal had two options, and I decided on the pasta dish which was described as a “light Mediterranean dish” with sundried tomatoes, and so on. This unfortunately was not the case. Turns out it was a pretty horrifying mess of tomato sauce with creamed broccoli. Hence my indigestion. Thankfully, I am feeling better now and I am looking forward to landing shortly in the UK for my layover and seeing Ashley in Heathrow.

March 24, 2018 – 1900 (GMT) Took off from Heathrow on time on flight South Africa Airlines 235. No delays. I had an amazing day in Heathrow airport with Ashley who met me there during my layover between Canada and South Africa. It is pretty amazing of all the places my layover would land, it would be only a short distance away from where she lives. We shared a fantastic lunch of sushi she brought from where she works and we enjoyed a few short hours of each other’s company before I had to get to my next gate. Unfortunately, the layover was not as long as we would have liked, but I will be contacting her as soon as I land in South Africa. She gave me this journal as an amazing gift that I will now be using to log my adventure from this point on.

March 27, 2018 – 0610 (SAST) Yesterday afternoon we went on our first game drive since my return to Africa. We spotted a number of very cool birds; most notably a lizard buzzard, a crowned eagle chick and a number of white-backed vultures. We of course enjoyed a healthy dose of impala, kudu and nyala sightings – which are always wonderful. The weather has remained cloudy, but no rain since my arrival. Today we are setting out on a bird survey on a nearby estate and I am looking forward to studying and photographing some of the more lesser-known animals this area has to offer.

April 08, 2018 – 1952 (SAST) I am very behind on my journaling; luckily I had made a list on my phone in order to make sure I would not forget anything. I could not journal while in the field due to the rains and I could not fit this journal in my bag with everything else I needed for the weekend. So I will catch up now: On Wednesday, April 04 I was in the tented camp that is located in the middle of an open game reserve. It was extremely hot during the day and sunny and quite humid. During our drive we spotted a number of raptors in the distance. As we were identifying them, the guide we were with had brought us to the last spot where she had left a couple of lions earlier that day, and luckily we found them. Two large adult lioness laying in the bushes. We spent a half hour with them before we had to let a tourist group into the location. The sun was almost down by that point anyway, so we had to get back to camp. On our way, the sun had fully gone down so we were spotlighting as we went. We spotted a bush baby in a tree to our left, and while trying to get a good visual we heard a very loud exhale to our right. To our surprise, there in the darkness were two very large white rhino resting on the road beside us - a bit uncomfortably close to the vehicle. As we were trying to move off another rhino came crashing through the bushes towards us on our left side. It was a large male but luckily he only gave us a a mock-charge and he and the two females moved away as we drove off back to camp. That night when we went to bed we were so exhausted from the heat that none of us paid much attention to prepping our tents properly. And of course, I was awoken at around 0230 because I left the tent sides up and was now getting rained on heavily. Part of me wanted to just ignore it and hope it would stop but I eventually got up and closed the my sides of the tent.

On Friday, April 06 we went to Swaziland. We got there in the afternoon and I bought a map straight away and traversed the trails on foot by myself. It was pretty amazing to walk alongside wild antelope and warthog and zebra so intimately. I did also come up on a couple of very large Nile crocodile across one of the narrow rivers and nearly crossed paths with a puff adder that was only a couple of feet away from me in the grass. The next day we took some volunteers up on one of the mountainside trails and climbed 1100 feet to the top. It was very hot, but otherwise uneventful except for about three quarters of the way to the top we ended up in the middle of a very vocal baboon troop. They were very loud and close to us and to be honest it felt quite alarming – especially because we couldn’t spot each individual due the density of the bush on the mountain side – but we stayed together and enjoyed a gorgeous day in Africa.

April 10, 2018 - 1228 (SAST) Yesterday morning on our drive in one of the nearby reserves, we had incredible lion sighting. We had five lions (one adult female, one sub-adult female, and three cubs) right out in the open with a fresh juvenile giraffe kill that appeared to have been taken down by the lions only a few hours before we arrived. The cubs were extremely energetic and playful as the big adult lioness continued to feed while her cubs played around her. At one point she picked the entire young giraffe carcass up off of the ground and carried it into the bush as if it weighed hardly anything at all. April 24, 2018 – 0954 (SAST) Yesterday I saw a total of twelve rhino in one day. Incredible, considering the extreme endangered status of these animals. We located six white rhino in one location of a reserve, three more in another location on the same reserve, then one more on a different reserve. And shortly after we located two black rhino. And to top it off, we found the same pride of lions that we had seen earlier that morning. I’ve been helping the guide this week navigate through the reserves and track animals. Between the two of us, we tracked down the two lions and the three cubs that we had seen before. It was a very special sighting as the cubs played energetically but were then called to stop their shenanigans and come back to their mother who let out a series of loud thundering roars.

May 06, 2018 – 1037 (SAST) I am very behind on my journaling. Last week was insanely busy, so I will try to catch up now on all the events that occurred since I last wrote:

On April 29 one of the volunteers and asked me to take her on a walk around the property. During this, we found fresh leopard tracks right near the lodge. We went back to inform the staff and management here, and the next thing I knew, I was doing a full-blown guided bush walk for the majority of the lodge which included close family friends of some of the staff who were here visiting briefly. That night, those guests were so impressed with the walk I took them on – especially the information on the animal tracks and signs we found, discussions about trees and flowers and so on – that they had invited me to hang out by the fire with them later that evening and they very kindly bought me a couple of drinks which I am very grateful for.

On May 01, we were back on the reserve nearest to the lodge. We spotted one of the female black rhino that was known to us and her little calf who was only about three or four months old now. We also spotted more leopard tracks which were accompanied by the tracks of a very small leopard cub – really special to find. That afternoon though, we headed out to the tented camp reserve. It was quite uneventful for the first couple of hours. Lots of tracks, but hardly any animals around. Not even the general game that were usually out. Suddenly it we got a call on the radio saying that another group spotted two “khankankha” on the other side of the property. We radio back to clarify because this would be an extremely unusual and exciting sighting in this location. Our heart sank as the response we had in return said that they were actually mistaken... but the cheeky guide on the other end of the radio was playing with us. “Sorry we are wrong,” they said as they tried to pretend like they had misidentified the species. After they let us feel a few moments of utter disappointment, they radioed back, “There aren’t two, there are three.” We rushed to the location and there they were. Three healthy adult cheetahs. It was incredible. This reserve does not usually have cheetahs – wrong ecological system – so these guys are not just a rarity here, they are completely unknown to this location. We got to spend about twenty minutes with them, but they were quite mobile and uncomfortable with the vehicles. Regardless, it was amazing to stay with them even briefly as they moved through the bush. I’m still blown away that we had this experience. I told Ashley last week that I had a very good feeling about this particular game drive we were going on and sure enough we found cheetahs where they’re usually were none.

On May 03, we went to one of the local reserves where people have their residential homes on and assisted in removing some of the invasive plant species that are becoming problematic on the property. Afterwards, we spent the afternoon assisting with maintenance work at the local reptile centre that focusses on reptile rescue and education. But the day before on game drive we helped track and record two female lioness and one female leopard and had an incredible elephant sighting where we ended up right in the middle of the heard. That afternoon we finished the day by hosting a “reading club” for young children at the local school where we helped the children develop their English language skills.

May 18, 2018 – 1430 (SAST) Last night we had our biweekly Sundowners celebration, this time at the nearest private reserve instead of at our lodge where we would have normally had it. The lodge managers decided that they wanted to try and make it up to the volunteers by having a special Sundowners this time because a few of our game drives this past week were cut short due to the heavy rains. So we all piled into the game vehicles and went. As luck would have it, we got a call on the radio from the land manager just as we arrived at the gates saying that there were two leopards on a kill in the north of the property. Only one person had brought a camera as this was not supposed to be a typical game drive and we sped as fast as possible up to the location where we found not just two, but three leopards on a very fresh impala kill. One mom and two young cubs. I was beside myself that I didn’t think to bring my camera that night. We spent at least thirty minutes with them and it was by far the best leopard sighting I have ever experienced.

But also: this morning we saw a honey badger in the day time - something I never thought I'd witness - and shortly after I attended a cultural show experience where I was made to dance and eat mopane worms.

May 28, 2018 – 1232 (SAST) Yesterday a large school group of high school aged students from the USA came to the lodge. Myself and one of the guides split the group of kids and their teachers up between the two of us and we did an anti-poaching unit simulation walk with them as well as a guided bush tour. It was very cool engaging with both the teachers and the students and sharing with them the amazing plants and animals that we can find right here at the lodge. May 29, 2018 – 1452 (SAST) I just got back from the tented camp this morning at 1130 and immediately took another large group of visitors out on a guided bush walk. They were all very into it and even some of them were saying things like, "I like trees now," and they clearly paid attention and were very keen. We went over animal tracks and signs, survival techniques, trees, flowers and even grasses. Earlier this morning before, I got back we had a good game drive with a very cool sighting of over 25+ elephants along one of the dams in the area.

June 01, 2018 – 2242 (SAST) We just got back from the Bush Pub. I came back to the lodge early with a few other people who didn’t want to stay very late either. We were heading down the road toward the main highway and I spotted something on the side of the road. We got closer and sure enough it was a large male leopard. He crossed right in front of us. I’m still buzzing from the experience. Our car was so excited. Anyhow, I am now in my settled room and waiting for Ashley to get off work so we can have our nightly phone call. June 06, 2018 – 1256 (SAST) We are heading to the tented camp in about fifteen minutes from now and I am the honorary staff member today so I will be in charge of research coordination and assisting the guide. We had a snare sweep earlier this morning on the property beside our lodge and found one snare along the fences and removed it. Yesterday we had visited the lions in the boma on one of the reserves we are working with. We are part of the project that will be releasing wild lions onto the reserve - an extremely exciting project to be part of. We saw all three male lions and the two females. They appear to finally be acting like a pride now and we expect them to be released next week or so. Interestingly though, while we were there we also came across three domestic dogs - a boxer, a chihuahua and a very skinny and unfortunately badly injured labrador. We reported them to the rangers via our radio and posted their photos on the private group chat of people who live and work on the property. They were later recovered by one of the reserve managers, fortunately. When we had found them, the boxer actually jumped straight into our truck and sat on my lap for some time before we made the decision to let the reserve managers and rangers take over.

June 7, 2018 – 1317 (SAST) We just got back from the tented camp and it turned out to be a more event full trip than I was expecting. As I said, I was in charge of the group and I felt I was running a pretty good show - we had fun but we were serious when we needed to be and got our research work done effectively and accurately. This morning we had wild dogs on a hunt which was incredible to witness and be part of. On our way home, however, is when the day got much more eventful than usual in Africa. We ended up in a pretty serious car accident. Basically, our driver just barely avoided a head on collision (that was of no fault of his own) that would have surely killed us. As he swerved back onto the road after having to drive onto the dirt alongside the highway at high speed, we clipped an oncoming car, skidded and flipped our van onto its side, narrowly missing some trees on the side of the road. I was in the front passenger seat and we landed on my side of the vehicle. The window and side mirror shattered as we hit the ground and glass and debris flew around the left side of my head, but I somehow ended up without a scratch. After making sure I was fine myself and not seriously injured, I immediately checked our people and assisted them out of the overturned van. I then went to the car that we hit and checked them all over and thankfully everyone was ok. Our driver was very upset with himself and with what had happened - although none of it was his fault; if anything he singlehandedly saved our lives - so it ended up my duty to inform the lodge and assist with filing the incident report. No injuries were sustained by anyone and we all felt very lucky to still be in one piece.

June 10, 2018 – 1518 (SAST) This coming week will be my last here at the lodge. I am both happy and not happy to be leaving. When I return to Canada I will start planning my relocation to the UK and searching for work. Ashley has flights booked to come see me in Canada as it will be summer there when I return and we plan to spend a few weeks together and go camping. This past Friday I gave my presentation on potential lion sustainability on a nearby private reserve to the land managers of the property as well as all those working and staying at our lodge. My presentation looked at all the potential benefits that the reserve managers and their land would have if they introduced lions onto the property. I was able to meet with the managers afterwards and have a lengthy and productive discussion regarding the ecological management strategies they already implement and the challenges they face. Many of the volunteers who I presented to have also chatted with me about my work and they sent the digital copies of my paper to their friends and families back home. It seems to have sparked good conversation around the lodge and this gives me confidence in my pursuit of working in conservation as a full-time career. June 16, 2018 – 1028 (SAST) I had my last game drive at the tented camp this week. I was in charge of the group again, but especially so this time as our guide was a freelancer from Hoedspruit and had never been to the tented camp before. So I was also directing him as well as the volunteers. Our first night at the camp as we were sat by the fire, we had a hyena approach us, but then take off as we heard elephants breaking trees in a small area just behind the tents. We then heard another noise over by where our vehicle was parked, which was right next to us, and it sounded like someone combing a carpet. We shined our spotlight over to see what it was and virtually right next to us was a big male hippo eating grass. The guide and I instructed everyone to remain calm and stay seated by the fire. “We may not have seen him until now, but he knew we were here and has been comfortable with us so far,” we said. After a few moments, the hippo walked off back down into the empty riverbed that lay just beyond our tents.

June 17, 2018 – 1203 (SAST) I left the lodge earlier this morning at 0700 and arrived at the airport in Nelspruit around 0900. My flight isn’t until 1640, so I have a lot of time to wait and reflect. Last night I had a special virtual movie date over the phone with Ashley, and we are very excited about our plans for when she comes to visit me in Canada. I’ll be keeping her updated during my travels back home and I hope all goes smoothly between my many flights back to Canada.

These excerpts from my journal have been just a small sample of the records I logged during my experiences in Africa. I have many more fond memories, and much more to expand on. If you enjoyed this blog, please do let us know and I will consider writing more about my African experiences. I would like to mention that all photos above were taken either by myself or by my fellow volunteers and staff whom I had the pleasure to work along side in South Africa. Please do visit the link below to find out more about the fantastic work done by African Impact and how you can get involved.

African Impact:


 Thanks for reading!