Given the levels of the Beta variant of Covid in South Africa and the low levels of vaccination, we are not at this stage proposing to run expeditions to South Africa in 2022. However, travel advisories and conditions on the ground change rapidly, and if by early 2022 it is looking as though South Africa is possible, we will be bringing forward the 2023 options and running in 2022. Our partners and the local communities with which we work are desperate for the Opwall teams to return so we would like to run in 2022 if at all possible. However, if you want to be sure of joining an expedition in 2022 then it would be best to look at one of the other countries
Dinokeng or Balule Reserve & Sodwana Bay
These expeditions involve one week in Dinokeng Reserve, a high veld Big 5 reserve or the Balule lowland reserve with is part of the Greater Kruger Park. The second week is then spent at Sodwana Bay where the students will be learning to dive and about marine ecology. Groups at either Dinokeng or Balule will spend part of their time in the bush completing mammal distribution surveys from vehicles using DISTANCE sampling and emptying camera traps. Foot based surveys with armed guards are also completed to assess levels of vegetation browsing and grazing from big herbivores to determine the carrying capacity of the reserve. The bird communities are also being monitored from foot-based point count surveys. The other part of the week is spent back in the camp learning about African wildlife conservation and management and the safety procedures needed to operate in wildlife reserve with large game species. In addition, they will be learning how to track animals, identify some of the main tree, bird and mammal species encountered and helping with analysis of camera trap footage.
During the marine week at Sodwana Bay the group will be learning how to dive to PADI Open Water level which once the theory and pool training elements are completed involves 4 Open Water dives with Divemasters. If the students are already dive trained then they will be completing an Indian Ocean marine ecology course with lectures and dive based practicals. If there is part of the group that only want to snorkel then they complete the marine ecology course but with he practicals completed by snorkelling.
Terrestrial Sites – Dinokeng and Balule Reserves
The students will complete two part days of bush skills training and four part days helping with biodiversity research in the reserve. The other part of each day will be in camp completing the African Wildlife Management course. The research activities in both reserves include helping with the following:
Elephant impact on vegetation: This is assessed using the Walker scale of damage within ha plots selected randomly from within 3 bands of distance from water sources.
Estimating large mammal populations: Completing distance based large mammal surveys from vehicles to estimate abundance of the target species.
Bird surveys: Completing foot based point counts and transects to determine bird diversity.
Marine Site – Sodwana Bay
The students taking the joint terrestrial and marine option will spend their second week in Sodwana Bay in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa and will complete one of three options:
PADI Open Water dive training course: This course involves a combination of theory lessons, confined water dives and open water dives to gain an official scuba diving qualification.
Indian Ocean reef ecology course: This consists of lectures and inwater practicals either by diving (if a qualified diver) or snorkelling. The lectures in Sodwana Bay cover an introduction to coral reef ecosystem (characteristics of a reef, distribution of reefs in east Africa), coral and algal species (growth forms and common species), megafauna (whales, sharks, manta rays), mangrove and seagrass ecology (importance of connective systems, threats to mangroves), economically important invertebrates (lobster fishery, aquarium trade), identification of coral reef fish (main reef fish families), reef survey techniques (quadrats, transects, stereo video), threats to and conservation of reefs (protected marine areas in South Africa and Mozambique).
PADI Open Water referral course: For this option students need to arrive having already completed their theory and pool training components. This course takes three days to complete, after which, students will join the Indian Ocean coral reef ecology course.
Operation Wallacea and our partners, Wildlife and Ecological Investments (WEI), coordinate large-scale research programmes to provide an empirical backbone for key conservation projects in South Africa. Our main aim is to assist conservation managers with pressing large-scale issues that they do not necessarily have the resources to address themselves. The South Africa research programme covers a series of reserves across the country, each using slightly different management strategies to conserve wildlife in their reserves. Big game areas in South Africa are fenced to avoid the spread of disease and conflicts between communities and dangerous animals. However, in reserves surrounded by densely populated areas such as Dinokeng Game Reserve, human-wildlife conflict can be a major challenge. Here, our research teams are looking at the extent of this conflict with a special focus on large mammal species. Large mammal distributions are monitored regularly through game transects, and nocturnal mammal distributions are assessed using a matrix of camera traps set up throughout the reserve. By combining this information with our knowledge of areas of dense human activity, we can begin to understand how human disturbance can alter large mammal movement and behaviour.
The restriction of natural movement caused by fences can also lead to locally dense mammal populations with high levels of vegetation impact. Elephants, for example, are ecosystem engineers and their impact can alter vegetation structure and composition. By directly monitoring both fire and feeding impact on vegetation and its knock-on effects to other taxa, such as birds, our teams can assist the reserve managers to better understand how elephants can affect long-term change in the ecosystem. Monitoring of this type is also highly important in Gondwana Game Reserve, which is situated in the biodiversity hotspot of the Cape Floral Kingdom in the Western Cape. This Big-5 reserve has converted agricultural land to conservation, with the large mammals feeding on old agricultural grasslands as fynbos vegetation holds little nutritional value for large herbivores. Reserve management here have therefore asked us to monitor how the large, enigmatic game species are utilising the various vegetation types found within the reserve, to conserve the diversity of critically endangered vegetation types while supporting Big-5 tourism and conservation of the area.
The costs of a school group expedition can be highly variable. There is a standard fee paid to Opwall for all expeditions but the location you are flying from, the size of your group, and how you wish to pay all impact the overall cost.
You can choose to book the expedition as a package (which includes your international flights) or you can organise your travel yourself and just pay us for the expedition related elements.
If you are booking your expedition as a package, you also have the option of being invoiced as a group, or on an individual basis
Our expeditions run during the South African winter, so temperatures at all terrestrial sites regularly drop below 5 degrees at night. It is dry season in the north, however, so the chances of rain are slim in Balule and Dinokeng, and days are usually sunny and warm with temperatures up to 18-22 degrees. Gondwana regularly sees wind and rain alongside the sun, and so warm, waterproof clothes are essential. The temperatures are generally warmer at night in Sodwana, and the sun can be quite fierce when out all day at the beach.
Fitness level required
Low. There are some short hikes over rough terrain, but most of the work is in or close to the game-viewer vehicles.
In Dinokeng and Balule, you will be staying in shared dorms within a large house while at Sodwana accommodation is in shared tents and you will need to bring a roll mat to sleep on. All sites have hot running showers, flushing toilets and access to electricity for large portions of the day. There is very little phone signal in Balule, but decent signal in Sodwana and Dinokeng. No sites have access to wifi.
Terrestrial Site: Bunk beds in shared dormitory-style rooms or safari-style tents with shared bathroom facilities
Sodwana Bay: Tents situated in a shaded bush camp. There is a shared toilet and shower block