African Adventure With Operation Wallacea
Tuesday, 17 September 2019
This summer 28 boys and four members of staff travelled to South Africa for an unforgettable two-week expedition with Operation Wallacea.
The journey to our first camp took approximately 40 hours and consisted of two flights, a ten-hour coach journey and a two-hour ride in open topped 4x4 safari vehicles. But even before we arrived in camp it was clear that this was going to be an amazing trip that more than justified the arduous journey. On our drive into camp we saw elephants, giraffe and antelope. The setting of the camp itself was spectacular, sitting just above a bend in the Olifants river; the view from camp was constantly changing but there was always something interesting to observe. We saw lions chasing a warthog, a crocodile sneaking up on antelope and baby hippos crossing the river with their parents to mention just a few of the sights.
Each day the boys participated in different activities; these included lectures, workshops and surveys. The surveys included vegetation surveys, mammal transects and bird point counts. The purpose of these is to help monitor the health of the reserve and the data collected is used to inform future management strategies. Through a series of lectures and workshops delivered by local guides, camp staff and external experts the boys learned more about local species and the pressures that the ecosystem was experiencing.
The passage below is an entry from the expedition diary which the students took turns in writing whilst on expedition. It chronicles one of the days in the first week:
“After falling asleep to the soothing sound of hippo grunts echoing in the African bushveld, we woke up for breakfast before embarking on our first bird point count. This involved driving along a transects starting from camp and stopping three times for ten minutes to analyse the species and populations of birds in the area by identifying them by their appearances or calls, which we learnt in the bird identification session the day before. South Africa is home to many interesting bird species including the ‘grey go-away bird’ and ‘African fish eagle’ which we became very familiar with. Whilst on our bird point count, our driver, Johan, received information from another group that there were African Wild Dogs in the area. After hearing about this, the performance of the mighty Mahindra pick-up truck was tested, reaching lightning speeds of 55mph. Fortunately, when we arrived, the dogs were still there, in a pack of around 9 individuals. There are only 6000 of these worldwide, making them an extremely rare find. After arriving at our next site after the detour, the wild dogs also arrived shortly after - while we were on foot. For a short amount of time, the alphas of the pack seemed interested in us however they soon perceived us as being too big and left the area. After this we enjoyed a lecture and activity about the benefits of biodiversity before having lunch.
“In the afternoon, we began a game survey which involved driving along an 11km transect and counting every single mammal in the area. While we encountered a few giraffes and elephants, most of our data was made up of impala. One of the impala we encountered was floating in the watering hole, right in front of a very content crocodile. Unsurprisingly, this impala was not included in our survey.”
In the second week of the expedition we travelled to a site called Sodwana Bay, renowned worldwide for its excellent diving. The majority of the boys were not qualified scuba divers before the expedition so completed their Open Water qualification whilst out on site. The diving exceeded our lofty expectations; the corals and fish were vibrant and diverse. The boys’ favourite sightings included sharks, turtles and octopus.
When not diving the boys undertook a wide range of activities to learn about the biology of the local ecosystem including rock pool identification workshops, sand dune walks and daily lectures.
The diary entry below logs one of the days in the second week of the expedition:
“After some perfectly toasted bread, referral group 4 gathered to head down to the beach for the first day of open water diving. The day would consist of two dives composed of practising various different skills such as: clearing a partially flooded mask, regulator retrieval and hovering. Although I was initially frightened by the treacherous conditions on the surface, once I’d descended to the ocean floor I was at ease. The sensation of entering an almost alien environment is something that cannot be expressed by words. The terrestrial world ceased to exist. Any lingering problems faded. It was surreal. We executed the aforementioned skills with varying levels of difficulty, so the dive master signalled to ascend after a near eternity in this wonderland. We reached the surface. Fresh air filled our lungs and we all sighed with relief. Obviously, we were glad to have survived the experienced unscathed. On the other hand, we were reluctant to leave this new world that we had found. We took a well needed and deserved break before returning to the waters for the next of many more dives. This time, we practised sharing air with a buddy as well as clearing a fully flooded mask. This dive was a lot simpler as we had adequately acclimatised to the reef. The highlight of my dive was when the group was in the middle of a huge shoal of thousands (or millions?) of small transparent fish that James referred to as 'glass fish'. There were so many fish there were times when they caused me to lose sight of other divers in the group. Being surrounded by this huge shoal moving in a synchronised manner was a magical enough experience but further intrigue was added by the presence of predators, Kingfish and mackerel, hunting members of the shoal. The glass fish responded in unison to the darting movements of the predators, both predator and prey displaying amazing speed and agility. It seemed as though the shoal were trying to use the group of divers as cover from the predators; whether or not this was true we were certainly right at the heart of the action, the scene was truly breath taking. Once more we returned to the beach feeling proud of our achievements. More importantly, we had to change from our wetsuits and rash vests as quickly as possible in order to warm up and enjoy the remainder of the day at the beach. A bumpy transfer took us back to the camp, where we were later greeted by a gorgeous chicken stew. The exodus camp was quiet that night as it housed a small village of exhausted divers.”
My thanks to the staff involved Mr Benbow, Dr Morgan and Dr Procter for giving up their time to accompany the expedition. We look forward to the next expedition in 2022 with great anticipation!
Report written by Mr Teasdale
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