On my 21st birthday, my wonderful Gran gave me some money and made me promise her I wouldn’t “fritter it away”. A few weeks later, I attended a talk by Operation Wallacea, a global conservation research group, at university. I decided I would combine my Zoology degree and love of animals with my desire to travel, and put the money towards one of their research trips to South Africa. My Gran was thrilled when I told her about it. It was the first time I’d ever flown alone, and I was terrified by the prospect, but it was much less scary than I’d imagined. In South Africa, I was introduced to my research team and our very basic accommodation. Following our first 4am start of many, we rode on the back of an open truck through the freezing African winter and I was beginning to question my decision to come. Just then, we were stopped in our tracks by two beautiful lionesses, who stared at us and then slinked past gracefully, leaving us in awe. My doubts disappeared. As the days went by, we were lucky enough to see elephants, cheetahs, hyena, giraffes, zebra, and so many other animals. The night sky out in the bush shone with more stars than I’ve ever seen before. We had lectures about conservation every evening, and collected data on the impact of the elephant population on the other wildlife and vegetation at Thanda Private Game Reserve for three weeks. Operation Wallacea will be publishing the results of their research using our data. For our fourth week in South Africa, my group travelled to Sodwana Bay, where we learned to scuba dive. Our first lessons were in the cold pool at the scuba centre, and I did not take to it straight away. I was dreading diving in the open ocean as I felt so nervous in the pool. When our first day at the beach came, the bay was beautiful, and the water was clear and warm. Fear was replaced by excitement as we sailed across the waves, and descended into the water. We floated above the incredible coral reefs as if at zero gravity. We swam and drifted in the currents along with the schools of glimmering fish all around us. We swam alongside a manta ray, and a huge green turtle. I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed being under the water. Before going on this trip, I wouldn’t have dreamt that I’d be able to fly to a new continent by myself, become a qualified diver, and make so many great friends. I was lucky to see so many incredible animals and learn about the importance of conservation and protecting them. While I was away, I received news that my Gran, who had been ill, had unfortunately passed away. My mum had told her about some of the amazing things I’d seen so far, and it made her very happy. I know she was very proud.