Studying Abroad in South Africa

Jul 25, 2017

by Leyna Stemle '18
Edited for content and length

Our fabulous stay in South Africa was spilt between a terrestrial week at Dinokeng Game Reserve and an aquatic week at Sodwana Bay National Park. Our trip was through Operation Wallace, but we worked with Work Travel South Africa and Wildlife and Ecological Investments (WEI). In between the two parks, we had a 10-hour bus ride.

On the day of our flight, we spent the day in Johannesburg going to the Apartheid Museum, a suburban nature park, stopped by Nelson Mandela’s house, and toured the city. 

Working With Animals

At Dinokeng Game Reserve, we helped them with their research by doing habitat assessments of different areas looking for the impact of elephants and the diversity of plants in various habitats. We also participated in game transects along roads where we surveyed all of the mammals that we saw. Lastly, we helped with bird point surveys to see which birds utilize certain areas and how abundant they are in those areas.

We also did some unsystematic drives around to find animals, and the last day we saw a herd of elephants! On our game transects (a path along which one counts and records occurrences of the species of study) and drives, herds of zebra, impala, kudu, wildebeest, and blesbok were very common. We also saw quite a few giraffes and ostriches along with a large diversity of birds. Throughout our time at Dinokeng, we learned awesome facts; such as, a Marshall eagle can break your arm without much effort. The scenery here was long leaf and short leaf savannas, which consist of mostly tall grasses and a few scattered trees.

Two greater kudus.

During our stay at Sodwana Bay National Park, the certified divers got to do a refresher course, dolphin watch and snorkel, and go on boat dives. A few students took a course to become certified divers and then did some ocean dives afterwards. On the dives, we saw a diversity of sea turtles, rays, fish, sharks, nudibranchs, corals, and shrimp.

Sodwana Bay is a super pristine place to dive with a large assortment of wildlife. It is also a Marine Protect Area and a National Park, so the fishing and activities are watched carefully so the environment will not be negatively impacted. The habitat here was a lot like a sub-tropical rainforest. On the beach, there was an area of forested sand dunes, which is a very unique ecosystem.

The Local Culture

On the last day at Sodwana Bay, a class of traditional Zulu dancers performed for us. Their dance style always has bended knees and involves lots of stomping and high kicking. We also had the pleasure of playing games and taking pictures with the kids for quite a while. They are so sweet, pure, and happy, even though they live with barely anything. Even just watching the kids dance and playing with them for a few hours makes you rethink the way we live life in the states.

Most of the locals probably thought we were just foreigners here to go on a safari and to go diving. Many of them, as we drove by, waved at us and were friendly, but some natives didn't acknowledge us. At Sodwana Bay, the locals seemed to acknowledge us more, especially since tourism is a big source of income for most of them.

Moreover, even though there are different cultures and aspects of the country, quite a few things seemed to be similar to the states. For example, the food is similar, but there are slight nuances in some foods and a few different staples. One of them is the corn version of oatmeal. It can be used for breakfast, but also made savory with a tomato sauce. It is very sticky and gooey but really enjoyable.

Many dishes seem to be spicier and are made with different spices than we use in the United States. Some of the other slight differences include tomato sauce in baked beans, smaller bananas, instant coffee that is mainly chicory, white pepper instead of black, and sweetened peach/orange concentrates used in juice mixes. In addition, eggs, butter, and milk aren't refrigerated either but I know that's a fairly common practice in other counties.

There were fast food places with very similar things on the menu. Instead of ketchup they say tomato sauce. Also, someone ordered a salad and it took the longest; we thought that was funny. In some areas along the highway, there are familiar food places that include KFC, Starbucks, McDonald's, and Pizza Hut. 

Local Landscape

Interestingly, on the bus ride from Dinokeng to Sodwana, the corn fields and cows went for miles and miles. Some areas were run down, but there were a lot nice homes too. There were definitely a lot of poorer areas. Many people didn't have shoes when they were walking along the side of the road or sidewalk. There were also many small stands along the highways to buy produce. Some areas have wild chickens and goats, as well.

Leyna Stemle with a flap necked chameleon.

Occasionally, there were cows and donkeys on the loose that crossed the road. Most of the houses are solid brick if they were in wealthier neighborhoods. There was also a big expanse on the drive that was a tree farm for logging, which was interesting but sad to see. In addition, they have the hadeda ibis everywhere here, like we have the white ibis in Florida.

Additionally, the roads and environment are tremendously different than the USA. Here, you drive on the left side of the road, have left exits, and the fast lane is the right lane. Natives often ride in the bed of trucks, even on the highway and through the game reserves. But, like Florida, there are tolls on certain big roads. In addition, at some tourist stops, we did have to pay to use the bathroom.

Cultural Differences

And the politics are handled very different too. Here the public opinion is very well incorporated into a lot the government decisions; however, this requires a large public awareness and education of topics being brought up. Here, it is also a very poor government, so funding for disease prevention and conservation is limited.

Moreover, English is spoken pretty abundantly, but Afrikaans is also heavily prevalent. When we encountered most native people, they spoke Afrikaans to each other. And when English is spoken they have a fairly heavy accent that sounds in between British and Australian to me. Surprisingly, most of the road and shop signs are in English. 

Back in the USA, we don't have many megafauna, which are huge animals, left. However, in South Africa, they are regular occurrences. We saw an abundance of zebra almost every time we drove on any road. Also, there are other large game, like kudu and wildebeest, which are a fairly regular occurrence as well! It was quite a pleasure to get to see such large animals in their natural setting.

Safety here is a bit different. We had to watch out for snakes, scorpions, and spiders in our camp and lodge. Overall, I think I could definitely adjust to lifestyle here, but it would take a while to get used to it. All of the employees here are beyond knowledgeable and I would love to gain and retain skills like they have obtained. Moreover, it appears that it is fairly affordable in South Africa, especially to buy property, but taxes seem to be the expensive thing. The culture here seemed to be about what I was expecting.

Overall, it was great to hear conservation success stories from Operation Wallacea, WEI, and in Southern Africa. Disney funded conservation of elephant management procedures here in South Africa! Also, two lions have been successfully reintroduced from Dinokeng into Another country. We were also told that the travel money from Operation Wallacea has helped fund tracking collars and birth control for the lions of Dinokeng Reserve. 

Why visit South Africa?

  • To see a different culture and way of life
  • See large wild animals in a natural setting
  • To learn firsthand and see conservation methods that are used today
  • To experience different food and atmosphere 
  • To be involved in the amazing research projects and opportunities that take place in the reserves and parks