The journey to Botswana took me around 30 hours from Europe, including a red-eye flight, two domestic flights, a three-hour drive to the Botswanan border, and another almost two-hour ride in a game vehicle until I finally reached camp.
Having done so much reading beforehand, I´d thought I´d be well-prepared when I get to see my new temporary home for the first time. Oh – I was so wrong! The minute we entered camp after a bumpy two-hour ride, I recognized a discomforting feeling spreading in my stomach. I saw the tents, nature around, insects buzzing. It was incredibly hot and humid. I looked at my phone: no signal. Why the hell did I come here? It didn´t take long for me to realize that I was going right into a new phase of… yep, that´s right, culture shock. A culture shock in the African bush.
I had to deal with culture shock before, such as on my trip to Fiji. So, I kinda knew what was coming in the next couple of days. I knew from experience that it was not gonna stay like this throughout my entire stay. At some point, I would probably adjust to my new environment, and then it would go away eventually.
However, my culture shock in Botswana was quite an intense one. Looking back at the experience, it is no wonder why I felt this way.
The Middle Of Nowhere
The camp is located in the Kwa-Tuli Reserve near the Limpopo River. A few hundred kilometers away, this river also marks the border between South Africa and Botswana. From there you can reach the camp on a gravel road, which here is regarded as a main road. The entry of the reserve is where you have to drive off-road through the savannah for about thirty minutes until you reach our camp in the middle of nowhere.
The next village, Mathatane, is a good 1.5 hours drive away. All you find in Mathathane is a small corner shop and a shabby room with some chairs, which they call the Mathathane bar. The next town with some sort of civilization, shopping facilities, and an internet café is Bobonong, which is about three hours driving from camp. Mind you, road conditions in this part of Botswana are miserable, not to mention the off-road driving within the reserve.
Back To Basics
The camp itself was beautiful but pretty basic: As I’ve already mentioned, we were all sleeping in tents. Mine was a normal sized one, which means there are 4 beds inside. However, I was alone in my tent most of the time. When I had first seen them, I’d been skeptical, but they seemed to be quite resistant after all. Also, they were waterproof and relatively mosquito-free as long as you made sure that they were closed properly.
Apart from that, there were three outdoor washrooms with cold-water showers. There was no roof to the washrooms, so as you can imagine, we had to look out for scorpions and other creepy crawlies while taking a shower.
We also had a laundry room, a kitchen, and an open fireplace combined with a spacious common area to socialize. That’s all we had.
What we did not have: tv, radio, internet access, electricity or signal. You’ll get a good idea of what the camp looked like if you pictured the camp of „I’m a celeb…“ (..not that I ever watched that…)
The reason why I mentioned what we didn’t have is that I had kind of underestimated this out-of-civilization-situation a little bit. I mean, I had read about it before coming here. However, for some reason, I had thought that this was merely a very dramatic description of the campsite in the information letter. Turns out it wasn´t.
Living Out Of Civilization
It might not sound very dramatic to you, but having signal all the time is something I, probably all of us, take for granted at home. Consequently not living with signal is something we had to get used to again. It´s entirely possible to do that, but it takes a while. 🙂
There was no signal anywhere near the camp nor in the whole reserve. There was the so-called signal-hill about 5 km from camp, which we could climb up and if we were lucky we might have gotten a little bit of reception. So I only got to have a signal about once or twice a week – that was an excellent opportunity to send out a generalized pre-written text to family and friends. But that was it.
As for the internet: I had been prepared that there wouldn´t be a lot of chances to socialize online, but, as stated above, the next internet cafe location was a three-hour drive from the camp. We only went there occasionally for shopping. However, not all the volunteers could join in. So, generally, we were able to use the internet about once or twice a month.
While there are indeed positive aspects of this out-of-civilization situation, it is to mention that not having reception, not being able to communicate also bears risks. For example, accidents can happen, and conditions may become dangerous without us being able to call for help.
People In The Bush
The people at camp were diverse. In my first week, we used to be a pretty international group: one Australian girl, two Germans (one was actually Austrian, though, the other one only spoke French), two Danish (a 19-year-old girl and a middle-aged woman), one 67-year-old Canadian lady, one Irish guy, five French girls, and one Japanese girl.
Also, there were two local rangers, a couple from England who pretty much run the project, and of course Jane, who was in charge of cooking lunch and preparing braais for dinner.
Apart from these people, there was nobody else to socialize with. As you can imagine, being in camp with all those people day in, day out, seeing each other all the time, it sometimes got quite tense between us. There were discussions and fights as well as moments of solidarity and unity, situations when we all realized we were all sitting in the same boat.
For example, I remember a Saturday when we collectively decided to go to the bar in the next village Mathathane and have a few beers as we were all tired and exhausted from the hard work the last couple of days.
However, this bar’s not a real bar. It’s one room with three plastic chairs and a counter. When we arrived at around 1pm (yes, we went there during the day), there were a couple of tipsy Africans drinking beer and dancing to the super-loud music played inside the room. So we all grabbed our beers (and ciders – yay!) and sat down on the floor outside the bar. Some of the others had already told me that this was gonna be a cultural experience – it was indeed! Also, I wasn’t exactly prepared for the fact that we just went there for the sake of getting drunk, which, apparently, was the reason for most volunteers as it was Saturday, 35°C and we didn’t have anything else to do. After five hours of drinking cheap African stuff in a semi-civilized, utterly run-down bar, we went back to the camp and went to bed even earlier than usual. It was not exactly a productive day, but it was good for the team spirit.
A typical day looked like this:
5.30am: Getting up
6.00/6.30am – 10.30am: Work activity
3.00/3.30pm – 5.30/6.00pm: Work activity
This might look a bit awkward to you guys, but all you could do was adjust!
Same with the climate by the way! It was incredibly hot during the day, still pretty hot when we went to bed and for some reason, the temperature dropped enormously at 3am so that we even needed a second blanket to sleep. As soon as the sun rose at about 5.30am, it was boiling hot again.
Usually, we worked in two groups, which were randomly chosen each day. Just like the people in your group, work activities varied from day to day as well.
The whole project was focused on elephant research and conservation, so most of our activities revolved around elephant census, elephant dung examination (yep! :O), and elephant behavior observation.
However, our activities also included road maintenance at the entrance of the reserve, ‘road’ maintenance within the reserve (there´s not a real road, but we have to cut the trees and bushes for our game vehicles to be able to drive through the reserve), stabilizing of baobab trees, cutting out paths for us to trek through the reserve, clearing water holes for elephants, spoor census early in the morning, crocodile census, baboon census, and – oh yeah – bird census.
You have to know, bird census is really not my cup of tea when it comes to activities. Unless it´s eagles or vultures, I find birds extremely boring animals. One day we had to get up at 4:15am for – no, I’m not kidding – bird census. Watching birds, counting birds, then trying to find the birds in bird-books, filling in data on a bird-sheet. I guess it has a lot to do with what it is one is interested in and usually, I’m open for all kinds of activities, but getting up at 4:15am for 4,5 hours bird watching. 🙁
Another exceptional event that we had is the so-called “sleep-out”, which means we literally slept out(side) in the bush. While you might assume we did this for team spirit and adventure purposes, the real intention behind it was to conduct a nocturnal animal census. By that, I mean counting and noting down all animal movements in a particular time frame.
Usually, we were given shifts of two hours in pairs to look out for animals and to make sure we were still safe. I was pretty surprised that there were hardly any mosquitoes and guess what, I wasn’t bitten once during those nights. During my first sleep-out, I did my shift together with the Australian girl – it was from 4am to 6am, which was supposed to be the best time to see nocturnal animals such as hyenas or leopards. However, we didn’t see any of them – only a couple of impalas, one bird, a few bats and a fantastic African sunrise at 5.30am. 🙂
On one of my last sleep-outs was truly amazing. We spent the night on a platform in a different area of the reserve. I woke up in the middle of the night to some bizarre noises. It was a loud slurping sound combined with heavy trudging through the mud. The others woke up as well, and our ranger used his spotlight to shine around. It was a whole herd of elephants, even a couple of elephant calves, drinking at the waterhole just in front of us and slowly moving across the savannah. Seeing those majestic creatures walking by only a few meters in front of me was one of the most astonishing moments of my entire Botswana experience and an image I´ll never forget.