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Field Course Fortnight: South Africa

It’s evening three since getting back from my field course in South Africa and I’m still knackered. At least I’m no longer dusty, having enjoyed the best shower as soon as I got home before crawling into bed – with an actual pillow! As well as tiredness and weird tan lines, I have come home with amazing memories and new friendships. Over our two week trip my course-mates and I were set several projects and challenges, but we were rewarded for our work with excursions and drives to see the incredible array of wildlife the country can boast.

First off we saw some African penguins, and then a boat trip got us nerve-wrackingly close to Great White Sharks. We were shown around Fernkloof Nature Reserve with its unrivalled range of plant species, then made camp at De Hoop reserve for a few days to carry out projects – here we were treated to braais (South African barbecues), sighting of Eagle Owls, ostriches & baboons, and semi-decent WiFi. From there it was a twelve-hour journey to Addo Elephant National Park where we dragged ourselves from our tents at 5am each day for a game drive before project work and trips to the watering hole viewing point. I was lucky enough to see hyenas, vervet monkeys, a secretary bird, a caracal, a Black rhino, mongooses, meerkats, dung beetles, kudu, warthogs and lots of elephants among other things. We didn’t need guides as we had our lecturers there to provide both comedy and extensive knowledge. A hike in and out of a valley made us all quite aware of the effect Christmas has had on our fitness, but luckily we had the next few days to recover while we collected data and put together presentations.

Towards the end of our trip we had a talk from a ranger, a trip to a local village that might have its land bought out by the elephant park, and a visit to a local crèche where we spent a tiring but happy afternoon playing with the children. On our last night the staff from the park sang traditional South African songs for us and got us to dance with them. Everyone we met was kind and cheerful, and it was an honour to have them share their knowledge, passion and culture with us. One of the main things I took away from the fortnight was an awareness of the connection between people and the environment, and how both need to be considered for conservation to be successful – it’s not as simple as just saving the animals.

I could write pages on what we got up to on the trip, and pages more on all the biology we learnt while we were there, but I appreciate that not everyone would enjoy that essay so instead here are 10 things I learnt in South Africa:

  1. Lecturers are much funnier than they seem in lectures, especially if you put them in charge of a convoy of vehicles and then give them each a walkie talkie. Or if you all club together to give them several bottles of gin on the last night.
  2. Baboons will look everywhere for food, even in the walking boots that you carefully wrapped in carrier bags. Just don’t leave anything outside the tent.
  3. People may laugh at you at the start of the trip if you’re really organised and have packed for every eventuality, but once you’ve saved 3 people from allergies and 1 from seasickness, sewn up your own ripped shorts, helped someone else fix their rucksack and provided aftersun for some nasty sunburn, you’ll definitely have people’s respect.
  4. Being vegetarian in South Africa means eating a lot of aubergine, courgette and lettuce. If you’re a vegan, be prepared for a lot of confusion (and a butter sandwich instead of the cheese one everyone else had) – it’s not really a thing there.
  5. Camping for 2 weeks will give you a huge appreciation of your bed, personal space and the absence of a queue outside your shower when you get home.
  6. No matter how much the prospect of meeting a huge insect in the dark distresses you, there will come a night where you just have to brave it and go for a wee.
  7. Cape Fur Seals make a noise like a man shouting (and smell awful).
  8. Rolling down a sand dune may seem like a great idea, but by the looks of it you just end up scratched and incredibly sandy.
  9. Children love piggy backs. It’s a universal thing.
  10. Flying on your own isn’t as scary as it seems, and long stopovers mean you get to see other countries sort of for free – never stay in the airport if you have time to explore! Walking round Amsterdam in my summer clothes when it was -4 was slightly uncomfortable though. Always pack a warm layer!

To anyone looking forward to an upcoming field trip or holiday, I envy you; my (very faint) tan is now going to fade as I lock myself inside to work on my dissertation, but I feel very lucky to have started the year with such a brilliant experience.

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Victoria Williams

Exeter Cornwall

Hi! I'm Vicky, I'm 21 and I'm a third year Evolutionary Biology student at the University of Exeter's Penryn campus. When I'm not learning about the weird ways animals reproduce you'll probably find me wrapped in a blanket with a book and a whole packet of custard creams.
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