Askari Orientation Week

My month in South Africa has ended. I’m now out of Africa and back in Canada, and have been home for a week. Which means – it’s catch-up time for these blog posts! It may take a little while – in just 28 days, I feel like so much happened and it’ll take me a bit to sort out all my notes and photos to share them. During the trip I took just over 2300 photos – prepare yourself for lots and lots of Africa images!

I landed in Johannesberg (aka “Joburg” to locals) on November 12, and met up with a few other incoming volunteers at the airport. We flew from Joburg to a smaller airport called Hoedspruit (I’ve given up on how to pronounce this one), where we met Katie, the leader at Askari Wilderness Conservation Programme – our destination!

Our orientation week passed in a bit of a blur. We got settled in at the Askari house, our home for the next month. Just the volunteers live in the house, so we had a kitchen, dining room, and living room all to ourselves, not to mention the many outdoor spaces we could take advantage of – including a volleyball court, fire pit, and swimming pool. There was a gardener who kept the yard beautiful, as well as two housekeepers who cleaned for us, did our laundry twice a week, and even made our beds and tidied our rooms every day! I felt very spoiled.

Askari house:


Part of the grounds, including the volleyball court and one of the hammocks. That beautiful red tree is a jacaranda:


On our first night, we were introduced to “sundowner drives.” Everyone grabbed a beer or pop, and then we drove in the game viewer to a pretty spot on the reserve to watch the sunset.

On that first sundowner, we met our first animals, a pair of zebras:


They posed very nicely for me!


We would go on sundowners a couple times a week or more. It was one of my favourite things about Askari, that we took the time to just sit and watch the beauty of the African sunset.

Over the first week, we had a number of orientation sessions and activities, including lectures on conservation, fencing, anti-poaching; lessons on how to drive the 4×4 game viewer (which was our main mode of transport; it’s kind of like a big Jeep, with lots of seats, and built for driving around the bush and viewing wildlife); lessons on rifle shooting; bird drives (my personal favourite!); herbivore count drives (where we counted every herbivore we saw and recorded the data); a lesson on animal tracks and signs; and our first braai (barbecue).

Some animals from the first week. Southern yellow-billed hornbills, which were everywhere:


Steenbok (a type of very tiny antelope!):

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Warthog family on the run:

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Zebras. I’d like to be a part of that posse:


The last zebra in that group. The male zebra will always go last when they are running away, to help protect his herd of females and babies. Here he is checking us out:

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Some curious giraffes:


During that week, we also had a couple of harder sessions, where we did more physical work: fence scuffling (using shovels to clear grass and small shrubs away from electrical fences) and cleaning up old wire and bricks. It was hard work, especially in the sun. One thing I was definitely not really prepared for was how hot Africa would be. Obviously I knew it would be hot – but I had no idea how bad my body would be at dealing with the heat. My poor Canadian blood had been living in temperatures of -1 to -10 Celsius the last couple weeks in Jasper; suddenly I was in heat of up to 38 degrees (in the shade!). I had to spend two afternoons inside, missing the team activities because my body was too warm. Luckily I had brought electrolyte maintenance packs with me, and after taking in lots of fluids, I bounced back. After the first week and a bit, my body more or less adjusted to the heat. (Though I did still spend a LOT of time in the swimming pool. It was blissfully cool, even on the hot days).

Throughout the orientation time, I remember being constantly impressed by our guides, Katie and Robbie. They knew a massive amount about animals, ecology, and life in the bush – but on top of that, they also had working knowledge in so many different areas: electric fencing, car engines, how to teach driving lessons and gun safety, planning meals, and more.

One of my favourite moments from the first week was our “bush breakfast” on the third day. Katie had us all wake up early to go look for hyena pups. We didn’t find any, but we got to watch the sunrise from start to finish. We also drove to a beautiful lookout point and set up there for breakfast, popping up a table from the front of the game viewer. One of our guides, Cas, later told us that this was his favourite spot on the reserve because you could see so little signs of humans: no buildings, no telephone lines, no roads. It was so wild.


My absolute favourite moment during orientation was our wilderness lecture. We were told that the lecture was outdoors, and Robbie drove us to a spot and led us on a ten-minute walk. We came out on Kopi rock, a beautiful spot overlooking the reserve; he then told us that there actually was no lecture. Our assignment was to sit there, for twenty minutes’ silence, and simply enjoy the view. Call me crazy, but I think these people understand true learning.

View from Kopi rock, with the setting sun. You can see the Drakensberg Mountains in the background:


The team, overlooking the reserve. Home for the next month:

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  1. Wow! As usual, I love your writing and reading about your adventures. You are learning so much Caelan, and we learn from you! See you soon, Love AJ


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