In July 2006, I departed on my very first solo trip outside of the Netherlands to work as a volunteer at Campfire Safaris in Balule Nature Reserve in the north of South Africa. The reserve is contiguous to Kruger National Park but animals can travel freely as there are no fences to seperate the two areas.
The work consisted mostly of bush work: finding and removing traps laid by poachers, fixing road erosion and keeping the fences clear from overgrowing bushes. Laetitia Cronje, the head of the program, treated us as students as well and took every opportunity to teach us all about the savannah inside and outside the classroom by going on daily bush walks.
The time flew by and the many first time ever experiences, often experienced with other volunteers from all over the world, in an environment surrounded by nature and wild animals underneath a red African sun, slowly making room for billions of stars, awoke every single cell in my body. When it was time to say goodbye, Laetitia made me promise to come back. How could I not?
Since then, I’ve always looked for opportunities of how I could make this possible. Little did I know that it would take me 16 years to gather the time and money required.
It was a somewhat nostalgic and happy but also sad mix of things that had stayed the same and things that hadn’t. Tinus, Laetitia’s dad who had built the entire compound, was no longer with us. Laetitia’s sons were now involved in the operations and one of them, Chris, would soon take over running the programs. Campfire Safaris was now called Campfire Academy and had shifted its focus completely from volunteering to teaching students.
I was allocated the very same rondawel as where I had stayed 16 years ago. The tower in the centre of the camp was still overlooking the savannah and so were the monkeys trying to steel our food. The fridge would testify with deeply engraved scratched caused by troops of baboons up to no good.
To make my return to the camp even more complete, I was greeted by two African elephants chilling only a few meters away.
I arrived right at the tail end of a batch of students finishing up their trails field guide course. A field guide course can take up to 90 days depending on the type of course. While we were waiting for the next batch of students to arrive, Laetitia invited me to come along to a couple of assessment drives where she had to evaluate aspiring field guides.
The first one of such drives was at Kapama Private Game Reserve, an extremely well organised game reserve and lodge just a little south from Balule.
At the end of my second week I rented a car and drove west to the most northern end of the famous Drakensberg. It’s part of a steep rift of valley walls that travels throughout the entire country of South Africa.
It is home to the Blyde River Canyon, which is the largest “green” canyon in the world. It stretches about 26 km long.
After the sun had set, a total darkness had blanketed the R527 towards Hoedspruit. Driving back on this road was one of the scariest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. It was pitch black, people have their own interpretation of speed limits, turning on headlights is optional and overtaking cars on the other side of the road could not care less whether there is incoming traffic or not.
I had to hit the emergency breaks to a stand still twice in order not to drive into an incoming overtaking car. With the second car, it was only at the last minute that I could see it rapidly approach because the lights of a truck behind it created its silhouette. It did not have any lights turned on. I beeped like there was no tomorrow, which probable made them think that I was the crazy driver.
Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is only a couple of kilometres away from the Balule Game Reserve and it is one of South Africa’s largest, oldest and most famous game reserves. All of Africa’s big five (lion, leopard, black rhinoceros, African bush elephant and the African buffalo) roam these lands.
Back at Campfire Academy
Officially, you’d need to be trained to know how to deal with hungry lions and temperamental buffalos while going for a stroll outside of the camp. Even more officially, you’d have to carry a gun (and know how to use it). I wasn’t and I didn’t, so spending some hours behind a “fence” followed. Saying “fence”, because it is not really a fence. It is more like two tiny electrical wires. It won’t stop the lions and leopards but it should keep the larger animals such as elephants and rhinos at bay. “Ellies”, especially, like to destroy things. Laetitia is working on proving that this is a good thing, as pushed down trees create tiny little brand new ecosystems and are moved around even more by elephants later.
During my last two weeks, a new group of students joined the camp to start their new adventure as aspirational future field guides. It meant that I could join them on their bush walks and classes and coincidentally, it was Laetitia’s last group of students before her retirement.
Back in 2006, the closest I had come to seeing a lion in the wild was by spotting an antlion. These tiny insects dig a pit in the sand and patiently wait for an ant or some other prey to fall in.
This time, we heard them growl nearly every night. On my second last morning, one of the camp residents pulled over in her ute yelling “in the car, 5 min”. I quickly ran to my hut to get my camera and jumped in the car. It only took about 5 minutes before we ran into a pride of about 8 lions casually walking alongside a wet area close to the camp that we call the “dam”.
What to expect from a place that has a legendary status in the mind of someone who hadn’t been to the same place in so many years? It is perhaps difficult for the African savannah to disappoint any visitor at any time, but there is one constant that always remains paramount: the people you meet. They can make or break almost any place.
Laetitia has since retired and has shifted her focus on training locals who could otherwise not afford it. Her knowledge, humour and kindness are unrivalled and she will always have a legendary status in my mind.
Thank you Laetitia, Suegnette, Adele, Ed, Chris, Brass, Karen, Mach, Carlos, Elsabé, Abs, Will, Beth and Mukateki. It wouldn’t have been the same without you and I wish nothing but the best for your awesome selves. Until we meet again.