Amber recently returned from three weeks at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC), a project she picked to test her dedication to animals and discover whether studying zoology was the right path for her. The following is her account of her incredible three weeks in Africa:
While heading to Hoedspruit I was quite nervous. I was travelling from Canada all by myself, but when my plane landed at the airport I felt excited and thrilled to be in Africa. Someone from HESC met me at the airport and whisked me straight to the centre to begin my adventure.
Once we arrived at Hoedspruit I met the guides and was shown my home for the next three weeks. Everyone spoke English very well and made me feel safe and welcome. I also found out that I was the only volunteer who would be there for the full three weeks. Two other students were to be joining later on in the programme but only for a few days. Once I was all settled in I did my best to sleep and get some rest for my first full day on the reserve.
On my first day I learnt how to perform the daily activities that I would do throughout my three weeks in the programme. This included preparing and feeding the small animals, cheetahs and lions. The staff were all very helpful and by the second day I was confident enough to prepare their food on my own!
I found feeding the small cats intimidating at first, they are the size of house cats but sound vicious. I never thought something that small could hiss so much. The cheetahs, on the other hand, purr -which I thought was amazing! You can’t just walk in to feed the cheetahs. When they’re in their feeding enclosure you have to throw their food to them over the fence. I got the piece of meat over and on the slab the cheetahs eat on in my first throw! The guide with me said it was the first time he had seen a student do that on their first try.
Towards the end of the week I got to feed the impala as well as the cats. They eat apples and grass pellets straight from your hand, and it’s amazing to see them up close. The head male impala tended to hog all the food, and would only let the females near me. The other males had to wait their turn. One of the zebra, Zeta, was jealous and I had to watch out for her and stay clear because she might buck – thankfully the head impala didn’t like her either so she never came too close.
At Hoedspruit they have an area called ‘The Vulture Restaurant’ which became one of my favourite spots to visit. It’s an area where the staff put bones and rotten meat for the vultures and storks. Once the food is out, all the birds swoop in all at once to get the food!
During the first week I also went on an excursion day to the spectacular Blyde River Canons. On my day off I decided to go water rafting as well. Both activities had spectacular scenery!
Towards the end of the week, the staff brought in an injured wild lion. He had got caught in a snare and had his paw cut open. He’d also broken two of his ‘big teeth’ trying to get the snare off. Although I felt bad for the lion, it was beyond amazing being able to see him up close. I helped the centre staff move him into the clinic, and was very aware of how big and heavy he was. I had never seen a lion up close before. The experience is definitely one I will never forget.
To start this week off, I got to join in on a lion hunt… ok, not actual hunting! Four lions at HESC were born with a vitamin deficiency and needed injections to get better. We got to drive around in their enclosure to inject all four with the supplements. They, of course, didn’t like being near humans and it took about two hours just to finish off this one simple task. Some of the lions would climb trees to escape while others would forget to look where they were going and they would run into a fence!
The next event outside of my regular feeding of the animals was a half-day trip to the nearby Reptile Park. The whole experience was very cool and informative, I learnt a lot about snakes and other reptiles. I got to hold a python too!
I also went on a day trip to Kruger Park, which meant waking up and being on the road by 5:00am! I have never been a morning person but since I arrived in South Africa my mind-set has changed. The sunrise over the park was hands-down, the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen in my life! At Kruger Park we saw all kinds of wildlife and I learned a lot about the animals and how they’re monitored and looked after. We also had a rare sighting of a male and two female lions soon after they had made a kill. The guides told me that this was very uncommon as lions often hunt at night and in twos.
There was a sad moment this week when the centre made the hard decision to euthanize a cheetah who had been sick for a long time. I accompanied some of the centre team with the cheetah to the vet clinic. I didn’t think I would be able to handle a sick animal or see one get cut open. After the cheetah was ‘put down’ though she had a post-mortem done, which I stayed to watch. I found the process very interesting.
I was also able to watch a second vet procedure on the lion that had come in during my first week. The lion had to have at least five root canals (just like humans), and also a part of his tail amputated because he had bitten the end off from stress. His paws also got a good clean. The whole procedure took about six hours, but it was really informative and cool. Before going to Hoedspruit I’d never thought of being a veterinarian, but after seeing what they do up close, I am thinking about becoming one.
This was by far my most eventful week at HESC! It started off with an elephant-back safari to watch the sun rise. Another amazing experience I hope to never forget. I felt so relaxed sitting on an elephant looking out over the African landscape. I cannot recommend it enough to anyone visiting Africa.
Next, I helped move the cheetah into different enclosures. This consisted of getting cheetah into a metal crate, carrying them to the truck, driving to their new enclosure and re-releasing them. Some were harder than others to catch and others were quite heavy, so it was a lot of work!
As we were moving one of the cheetahs the driver stopped near the fence of an enclosure, behind which were two cheetah. One of the workers went in and picked up the tail of a cheetah and let it drop. It was then that I realised there were three cheetahs in the enclosure – the third was paralysed. At this point the team leapt into action and everything became a blur. We stopped at the nearest enclosure to drop off the one cheetah we had been moving, before driving back to the other enclosure. We ran in with the crate to get the injured cheetah out. I can remember one of the workers yelling at me to keep an eye out on the other two cheetahs to make sure they didn’t get too close to me. We collected the cheetah as quick as we could and were off running again back to the truck. Later on at the vet clinic I found out that one of the other cheetah was stalking me the whole time until the worker yelled at her. I guess I didn’t keep my eyes on them the whole time…
We went straight to the vet clinic with the sick cheetah. We were there for approximately seven hours but unfortunately the cheetah passed on, despite the best efforts of the staff. I was sad to see the cheetah pass, but felt proud knowing that we had done our best to save her.
On my day off I decided to go horseback riding, which was really cool and helped to take my mind off the cheetah the day before. While riding I was surrounded by wildlife like zebras and giraffes, and in the afternoon the student programme workers took me on a picnic to a near-by waterfall and to see the Blyde River dam and its beautiful scenery!
My final excursion was also my favourite, with caves, potholes, pancakes and flea markets. Our tour guide at the caves did a very good job at explaining the history behind the caves and the surrounding area. While every sight was incredible, what made the day so special was the journey to each of them. We had to travel a long way to reach both the caves and the potholes, and the scenery was spectacular. I saw towns, canyons and much, much more. During the drive we stopped at a bunch of flea markets and tourist lookouts. The flea markets were full of cheap, cool stuff – I bought a ton of necklaces! As for the pancakes… they were some of the best I’ve ever eaten. Just delicious and with so many different flavours to choose from!
I was sad to leave Hoedspruit, not least because I’d miss the weather! Being the only long-term volunteer had definite advantages. I feel like I learnt a huge amount about both myself, and Africa’s wildlife. I would recommend this programme to everyone and anyone! It is truly amazing how close you get to some of the most interesting and fascinating animals in Africa. Hoedspruit is a special place and I miss it every day.