I am currently a final year student at the University of Leicester. I am studying Physiology and Pharmacology, which is as horrible as it sounds! Two years ago, I had a mid-university crisis, when I realised I wanted to study Veterinary Medicine. Instead of going out and buying a sports car, I took a year out. For the most part, I volunteered in local vet clinics, caring for animals and cleaning. Toward the end of my year out, I stumbled upon a vet internship at a game reserve in South Africa. The combination of travelling and gaining experience was ideal. Also, leaving the English winter behind to be in boiling hot sunshine is a no-brainer!
So, in November 2015, I was waiting at Halifax train station with my huge purple suitcase. I had waved goodbye to my mum and tried my best not to show my overwhelming nerves. Then I heard the one thing I had feared the most. “The train to London Kings Cross has been cancelled.” Great! Take deep breath and – Panic! Thankfully mum had not actually left and reluctantly said she would take me to the airport. Thanks mum, for still rescuing me even though I have left home!
A speedy trip down the M1, a couple of long flights later and I was in Port Elizabeth, waiting for someone from the reserve to pick me up. It wasn’t long before I was in a minibus with three other new volunteers and we were on the way to Kwantu Game Reserve for the first time. We hardly had time to talk to one another, as most of the time we were staring out of the window with our mouths open. The view was breathtaking. As we pulled into the reserve, we were immediately on the lookout for animals. The first animal we spotted was a zebra. I can safely say I was not expecting to be so overwhelmed. Seeing it in its natural environment, with the sun setting behind it, felt like something you see in a movie. I may or may not have cried.
We were dropped off at the volunteer accommodation, a huge wooden barn with a corrugated plastic roof. We moved into the first bunk beds we could find and, exhausted by the 20-hour journey, we went straight to sleep. I had set an alarm clock for the morning. However, this turned out to be completely unnecessary, as at 6.30am we were all woken by the resident alarm clocks – the monkeys and lions! Every morning the monkeys would run across the roof of the building and the lions could be heard roaring in the distance. At 7.30am we set off to go help with conservation of the reserve. This would either involve fixing the tracks, removing invasive trees with machetes or repairing fencing. We would then return for a well-deserved breakfast. After breakfast, the rest of the vet interns and I would leave to meet the local vet, Ru. In the morning, Ru would teach us about animal-related diseases. In the afternoon, we would go out to work with the animals.
Within the first week, we had administered vaccinations to local cattle, herded sheep, disinfected an elephant abscess and returned an escaped ostrich to its enclosure. We had also been taken for target practice to prepare us for using a dart gun. One event that will stay with me for ever happened during our pre-breakfast trip into the reserve. On the drive in, we excitedly noticed lion paw prints on the track. A worker pointed out blood on the grass and said that Zulu, the alpha lion, must have been hunting during the night. Thinking nothing of it, we got out of the car and started repairing the potholes in the track. To do this we had formed a production line and were passing stones to one another. It was a bit too warm for such heavy lifting but it was going well. Another truck pulled up after half an hour and the driver told us that he had seen Zulu this morning – near to where we stood. We nervously started looking around us and, sure enough, a few metres away in the bushes, Zulu was lying down watching us. I don’t think anyone has ever gotten into a truck so fast. It was a good job he had already had his breakfast!
Near-death experiences aside, my time at the game reserve was everything I had hoped for. It confirmed my passion for working with animals, while opening my eyes to the reality of such a career. It has inspired me to apply for more positions abroad. After graduation I will be leaving to volunteer for two months at a sanctuary in Canada. Upon my return I will be applying for postgraduate veterinary medicine in Slovakia. I hope that this time next year I will be able to write to you again with some more adventures!