Megan Frain, like many of the Operation Wallacea office staff, started her Opwall journey as a student on an Opwall expedition! Megan has recently joined the team at Opwall HQ and wanted to share with you her incredible experience in South Africa!
Everyone loves a weird and wonderful meeting story, and I think I have one of the best. After attending an Opwall presentation at my university in 2017, I was set on partaking in an Opwall expedition. Straight after receiving the brochure, I knew exactly which expedition I would be embarking on, and that was to South Africa. I was very apprehensive, having never travelled solo before but it was something I knew I must do; my dream was to see an African elephant in all its beauty. My Opwall expedition was the best journey and experience of my life, so I want to tell you all about it and sprinkle in some pointers and top tips along the way to ensure it is also the best trip of your life!
My first solo flight was very successful, and I had made my way into arrivals at Johannesburg airport. There I was welcomed by an Opwall staff member who told me I was the first one to arrive and we needed to wait for the other Research Assistants. With that I headed to use the airport facilities and freshen up. And this is where my wonderful meet story started…I was approached by a girl, a similar age to me and she had noticed I was wearing an Operation Wallacea volunteer jumper and asked if I was on the same trip as she was and turned out I was. We introduced ourselves and became best friends from there. This is what Operation Wallacea is about, meeting new people and forming new friendships in the best way possible.
We started our journey to Dinokeng Game Reserve. My first tip would be not to underestimate how hot a transfer coach will be! Despite not being far from the airport, the roads mean that the transfer can sometimes take longer than planned so pack your day bag sensibly. Once reaching camp, we were shown to our tents and of course I had already chosen my tent pal! We got settled and then were introduced to the staff looking after us for the next 3 weeks.
On day 1, my group was lucky enough to go on the first game drive transect of the season; driving a set route around the reserve and recording the abundance of large mammals on that transect. After a successful first transect, we started to head back to base when our guide received a phone call to say there was a herd of elephants around a 20-minute drive away. It was starting to get dark so it meant we may not be able to see them and obviously they may move away. Despite this, and only knowing me one day, the guide knew how much seeing wild African elephants meant to me so he turned the bakkie around and headed in the direction of their last sighting. 20 minutes later, I experienced the most magical, awe-inspiring moment of my life as I set my eyes on my first wild African elephants. To date, nothing has quite topped this moment. We spent 10 minutes with the herd. They were so calm and welcoming and even allowed us to have a good look at their young calves. The photo below was my favourite from the season. After spending time with the herd, we left them in peace and returned to camp as it was getting dark. This brings me to my second top tip, do not underestimate the change in temperature…
Throughout all the days spent on the game reserve, the biggest change we experienced was always the temperature, so be prepared. From carrying out 6am bird point count surveys in a frozen bakkie, to sunbathing on the grass at midday, the temperature changes a lot. You spend most of the morning taking off hats, gloves and 10 layers of tops to put them back on during the late afternoon. Overnight gets very cold so hot water bottles in your sleeping bag become your best friends. Even during the evening, the best footwear to wear is your boots, albeit looser than during the day as there may be some unwanted guests hanging around camp!
The food was very good on camp, but it did get slightly better at Sodwana, but only because they served my favourite meal on the first night (mac and cheese)! Meals at Dinokeng were really nice and most seemed to include a form of pap…safe to say I wasn’t a fan, but it was very filling and many of my fellow volunteers loved it. Pap is a traditional South African porridge/polenta meal and is a staple food to accompany anything.
The camp at Sodwana Bay is very accommodating, the tents are basic so make sure to take a good roll mat or thermarest. We also found it really helpful to be tactical with which way we set our beds up, as some of the tents are on a slight incline! Dive days at Sodwana were the best! I was part of a small, qualified group and we had the best time on our reef ecology dives.
If you have some spare time, I recommend sitting on the hill tops and looking out onto the horizon; if lucky like I was you can see humpback whales breaching around mid-afternoon! We were also lucky enough to organise an early morning trip to watch the sunrise and it was a very good choice! Overall, it is a lovely end to the best trip you will ever go on. If you are lucky enough like me, you will make friendships for life, and still 5 years later that friendship is the strongest I have made!
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