A powerful roar and a golden flash. I had only seconds to react before I found myself chasing three lions through the Hluhluwe–Imfolozi Park in South Africa. While most of my peers were in school, this was my Tuesday spent on the Ecology expedition.
Let me be honest – before this trip, I had never camped or hiked before. As February turned to March and the trip approached, I began to realize what I had gotten myself into. The idea of carrying an 85 litre backpack for two weeks was not inviting, and my nerves grew exponentially as our departure date drew closer.
Yet as I stepped into the iMfolozi, the oldest nature reserve in Africa, I left all connections to civilization at the gate of the park along with my initial worries. The two weeks I spent in both the iMfolozi and Drakensberg Mountains are an experience I will never forget.
While I can’t guarantee the opportunity to chase lions, I can assure anyone considering taking Ecology that you will be humbled as you walk amongst animals in their natural habitat. When I stepped into the park, I realized how irrelevant I was in such a large, complex environment. This was the animal’s home, not mine. We walked in silence, kept our distance and left no trail behind, ensuring our presence in the park was not a disruption to its inhabitants.
I quickly learned that the animals we encountered were not our friends. We had to be alert at all times, and ensure our actions did not put our group or ourselves in danger. We worked closely as a team, and we all had to contribute equally.
Part of this contribution came in the form of night watch. All day our guides were leading us through the bush, tracking animals and ensuring our safety. In order to relieve them of their duties, we stepped up throughout the night. For roughly hour and a half periods, each of us took turns waking up and watching over the group. The thought of night watch was beyond terrifying. Spending time in the middle of the night, alone in the iMfolozi, a place where I was already beyond vulnerable, was something I vowed I would not do.
Yet, the first night in the iMfolozi rolled around, and there I found myself sitting alone by the fire, shining a torch for animals. A small confession – I loved every minute of it. The serenity that came with sitting under a sky full of stars, tending to an open fire was precious. I was paranoid, but never afraid.
When we said goodbye to the chaos and uncertainty the iMfolozi presented, I found myself lost in the beauty of the lush Drakensberg Mountains. I have never been in a place where the panoramic views were endless, and the expanse of mountain drifted off into the clouds. From sleeping in natural rock caves, and drinking clean, pure water straight from the river, we used all the resources the mountains provided. The adventure and ease of life that came from the Drakensberg was stark contrast to the iMfolozi, but nonetheless just as rewarding.
In such a technology driven society, giving up all connection for two weeks was another privilege associated with this experience. The ability to step away for an extended period of time, and be surrounded by people who were doing the same, not only fostered better connections and memories, but was also a much needed break. Being away and out of touch for so long, it is ever more apparent how dependent I am on technology. But while I was in the iMfolozi and Drakensberg, no technology meant no worries. We were all able to truly live in the moment.
I step away from this trip with two main takeaways: I am unbelievably fortunate, and, in the end, it is always better to take a chance. Yes, these may sound like clichés, but they’re true. If you asked me last year about my plans for Spring Break, camping would have been the last thing to come to mind. To take that step and try something completely new is terrifying, but, in the end, beyond rewarding.
I am fortunate enough to attend a school where such a trip is a class requirement, and this is an opportunity I urge as many people as possible to take. My two guides, Mandla and Artist, are two of the most knowledgeable and passionate people I have ever met, and it was a privilege alone to be in their presence throughout the trip. The lessons and experiential learning I experienced are not something you can replicate elsewhere. I have learned more about myself, the people around me and my setting than I ever would have in a classroom setting.
So I urge you, please take the chance on Ecology – you will get more out of it than I can begin to explain. The people you will meet and places you will see are beyond special, and I can strongly say this something I will not forget. The iMfolozi and Drakensberg will forever have my heart, and I hope the same can be said for others.