Coming Full Circle

By Madison MacKenzie

As I stepped off the plane in Hoedspruit, I was ready for this new adventure. We climbed into an open game drive vehicle for the first time and set off for our first destination: Wits Rural Facility. Here we had our first lectures and set up camera traps for one of our projects. It felt as if time was infinite and that we would be here forever. The excitement continued as we saw our first few giraffes in our camp. After spending several days here, it was finally time to enter the Kruger National Park.

We spent all day driving from the southern part of Kruger way up to Shingwedzi Research Camp in the north. This is where the true excitement began. I was wide awake searching the bush for wildlife. The first of the big 5 we spotted was elephants! Seeing them down in a riverbed was such a beautiful moment. Moving on, we saw a couple of lions far in the distance. I stared through my camera in awe watching as they greeted each other. How could this day get any better? Around sunset we spotted a leopard close to the road weaving in and out of the bushes. My jaw dropped. The leopard’s stunning fur was gleaming in the sun. Thomas, our driver, said this was the biggest leopard he had ever seen!

The next several days were exhilarating. I’ll never forget the early morning game drives where we sat huddled in the back of the game drive vehicle wearing three pairs of pants and all the long sleeves I had to stay warm. By night we would sit around the fire listening to stories and getting to know one another. Lying in bed we were able to hear lions and hyenas calling nearby.

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Our time in Kruger came and went quickly. We were on to our third destination: HaMakuya and the Tshulu Camp. The scenery here was completely different. Our camp overlooked a river and we were surrounded by hills and rocky terrain. I sat and watched as the sun set behind the baobab tree across the river. The view was far too perfect to be real.

After two nights there, we headed in groups off to our homestays. Having two familiar faces with me for this experience was comforting. Having each other for support allowed us to be involved in discussions with our homestay family as well as playing with the children. On the first night as I was walking to the latrine I looked up at the stars and stopped dead in my tracks. I had seen stars before of course, but I never knew what I was missing. I turned around and saw the milky way in the night sky for the first time. In that moment, there was nothing more incredible than being able to stare at the night sky dotted with thousands of visible stars.

Leaving the Tshulu Camp proved to be the toughest. Sitting in the game drive vehicles we waived at people living in HaMakuya. Tears escaped many of us as we reflected back on everything we experienced living with these people. After several hours of driving on highways, we entered the dirt roads that would take us to Makalali Private Game Reserve. Along the way we saw three cheetahs walking along the fence. To say I was excited would be an understatement. My childhood favorite animal was the cheetah and I was screaming on the inside. I never thought I would see them that close!

We arrived at the game lodge covered in dirt. It felt weird to be in such a high end place looking like I had just been outside picking up dirt and rubbing it on my face. Nonetheless, the time here was well spent. The game drives got more exciting each time. We finally saw the last of the big 5: rhinos. Moments later we came across half a dozen lions on the move. The look of determination on their faces said everything. They trotted powerfully through the field weaving around our game drive vehicles before disappearing back into the bush. I thought that there was no way the game drives could keep getting better.  The next day we spotted more rhino and a leopard with two cubs! This was an incredibly rare sighting. We watched as one of the cubs climbed the tree holding and impala. At this point we had seen a total of seven leopards on the trip!

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After living in luxury for a few days, we arrived in the mountains of Lekgalameetse. I felt more at home here in the quiet forest. I felt a change in energy not only in myself, but in our whole group. This was a time for relaxing and reflecting to refresh ourselves from everything we had taken in to this point. We did group hikes in the park and had guides to give us the history behind this beautiful place. The last hike was to the top of a mountain where you could see forever. Everyone seemed happy and we enjoyed the final moments in this incredible nature reserve together.

As I am sitting here back at Wits I realize we have come full circle. Where has the time gone? It feels like a lifetime ago when we arrived here and observed the South African landscapes for the first time. I came hungry to learn everything I could about the communities and conservation strategies.  Looking back, I realize that I have learned so much more than I could have ever imagined. I think the most important lessons I learned were from the people I shared these moments with. We started this trip hardly knowing each other and now we leave South Africa as a family.

Natalie Miller