Balule Nature Reserve and Sodwana Bay- South Africa

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This summer I travelled to South Africa with Operation Wallacea for two weeks as a research assistant. The first week was based in Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa, which forms part of the Greater Kruger National Park. We then travelled to Sodwana Bay in the KwaZulu-Natal province, which is situated in the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Operation Wallacea is working in partnership with Wildlife and Ecological Investments (WEI) to develop and implement large-scale research programmes studying the impact of the expansion of elephant populations on vegetation and biodiversity. The data collected in these studies is directed towards providing scientific data that will be used to develop a manual of best practices for wildlife conservation reserve managers. Additionally, Operation Wallacea produces annual reports for reserve managers providing details on the expansion of elephant populations, the vegetation and the associated diversity of key taxa. This project is designed to aid conservation managers with large-scale issues for which they do not have the resources to address.

For the second week of my expedition, the group moved to Sodwana Bay, the marine site. Situated in the KwaZulu-Natal province it is an untouched stretch of coast that is rich in marine life. Here I completed the PADI open water dive training. This involved a set of closed water dives in a pool and open water dives in the ocean, as well as theory lessons and tests.

I was excited and slightly anxious at first to be travelling alone to Africa as I had never been to the African continent and had travelled alone long distance only once before. However, as soon as the plane took off I started to relax and enjoy the moment. The journey ran smoothly including the pick up and arrival at the hotel where we would spend the first night. I was a bit nervous meeting the other members of the expedition. We would after all be spending two weeks together and I was worried that I wouldn’t fit in or that everyone would already know each other and it would be more difficult to join in. However, everyone was friendly and kind and I soon made a group of close friends that I will keep for a long time. In the second week, my main concern was completing the PADI Open Water Dive training course. The previous year I managed to get half way through but unfortunately perforated an eardrum during one of the deep dives. I paid careful attention in order to avoid this happening again.

The two weeks were such a rewarding and truly unforgettable journey. I have made lifelong friends and learnt so much from the South African rangers who I cannot thank enough for being so much fun and having so many stories to tell. Not only did I have the chance to walk in the bush and see such amazing wildlife but I also gained valuable field based knowledge that is vital for my future career.

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