I found myself, at random moments at the beginning of my trip, questioning how I had even gotten to this place in my life. I had never been anywhere in my life. I was last on a plane when I was about 10 and had never been anywhere more foreign than Florida. I was leaving my parents at the airport and I thought to myself ‘What am I doing?’. I was sitting on the South African Airlines plane, waiting for it to take off, and I thought to myself again ‘What am I doing?’. I think the same thing now, still in awe at myself for pushing past my own boundaries.
Day 1, Tuesday: When I arrived in South Africa, somebody from my program, African Conservation Experience (ACE) greeted me at the airport. I struggled to find her for a moment which led to a little panic but I held it together! I was given to a professional driver hired by the program to make the drive across the country. My destination was Louis Trichardt which was about 4.5 hours from the Johannesburg airport. I was introduced to a girl named Margarida who was on the same program that I was and who would become a good friend to me on the trip.
Considering I had gotten no sleep on my 15 hour flight, I spent most of that wonderful drive through South Africa sleeping. The scenery was like something out of a movie. You think you know what the world looks like from movies and tv and then you experience it yourself and suddenly the world is more real than ever before.
When arriving at my program, I was immediately thrown into the animal clinic and met all the other volunteers who had already been at the program for a few weeks. There was Gen, from Australia, Kristina, from Tennessee, and Maddy from Connecticut. The volunteer coordinator was another girl our age from the UK. Throughout the program, it was the most enlightening thing to talk to the other volunteers. They had different names for things and different ways that their countries handled veterinary school. At one point, I had to explain what a bagel was to some of them. A food that I eat almost every day is foreign to them.
Did i mention everyone drives on the left side of the road?
Day 2, Wednesday: This was my first full day in the program. I spent a lot of time around the clinic, seeing how differently they treat veterinary medicine in South Africa. Because they mostly have farm dogs that don’t get a lot of vet care, there is a lot of parvo virus from a lack of vaccines and a lot of puppies from a lack of spay/neuter. One of the first cases I saw there was a puppy with parvo and also some puppies that had been poisoned. A lot of pets were put down or left to die because their owners could not afford to treat them.
The best part of the day was when we went out with one of the doctors, Barand, to transport some Sable, a type of antelope. I had never even heard of this animal and all of sudden, I was riding in the back of the ‘bakkie’, wanting for these animals to be darted/sedated with a dart gun so that I could go give them deworming and vitamin injections. This was the first moment that really excited me and showed me the experiences I had in store for me throughout the trip. It is cheesy to say, but I had honestly never felt so alive.
Day 3, Thursday: More Sable! We went out with Dr. Heinrich this time, who turned out to be my favorite vet. This time was even more hands on than the last. A few Sable needed to be treated for parasites and others needed to be transported. I got to be the one to give them an IV injection to wake them up once they had been transported under sedation and hold them until they could hold their own head up.
But the day didn’t end there! So much went into this day. We treated a Sable with a thorn in his foot. We met Heinrich’s very small new pitbull puppy. We pulled a deceased triplet out of a goat giving birth. We darted some buffalo with antibiotics because they had diarrhea. We checked out another mama goat with mastitis.
Day 4, Friday: This day, we went to Heinrich’s parents farm to dart and transport some buschbuck. They look exactly like little deer and yet they bark like a dog. The animals are confusing in SA, that is for sure. Afterwards, Heinrich earned his status as the best vet by letting us have a shooting contest with the dart gun. I shot a rifle once at girl scout camp but that is the extent of my knowledge with guns. I don’t mean to brag here, but I did manage to tie Margarida for first place.
Later on in the day, there wasn’t much going on so Barand called his friends at a Lion farm nearby to see if we could visit and watch them be fed. This was definitely one of the most memorable moments in the trip.
Day 5+6, Saturday and Sunday: On the weekends, we had free time to do exciting things around South Africa. We decided to go to a game reserve that had a wonderful place to stay. The owners were friends with Heinrich so we got to do some special viewing. A giraffe crossed our path at a watering hole at one point, which made the whole day worth it. At this reserve, they had big tents (with beds and furniture inside!!) that we stayed in. The shower had no ceiling so we showered out underneath the stars. What is light pollution? Heinrich’s friend Axel took us to feed the wild dogs on the property. I wish I could explain the noises that wild dogs make to you. Imagine a cross between a dog and hyena that makes bird noises. They instantly became my favorite South African animal.
Later on, we went to track rhinos in the back of the reserve. They had three white rhinos on the property. We spotted two of them right away but could never find the bull. I didn’t get many good photos of them either but I enjoyed scavenging through the bush.
On Sunday, we went to the mall and I had the best chicken I have ever had in my life.
Day 7, Monday: This day, we went out to see a cow with a split tongue. The front half of it had been sliced off. It looked like a clean cut and that all it really needed was antibiotics. The only issue was that cows use their tongues to pull up the grass when grazing so she might have a hard time eating. The owner would try different feeds with her and keep a close eye to make sure she was getting nourishment, especially because she was pregnant.
In a different instance, I saw one of the worst euthanasias that I had ever seen. I usually work with cats and dogs who are put down under sedation and using drugs to stop the heart. In meat animals, you cannot use drugs because then you cannot eat the meat. This day, we went to a farm who reported that one of their breeding cows was attacked by a hyena. (I know, a hyena. Not a coyote, a hyena). When we arrived, we noticed that her udder had been torn apart and there was a gaping hole in the side of her abdomen. Her entire back end had been destroyed. There was no way that she could continue to be used for breeding. Therefore, the farmers opted to put her down. I had never seen an animal be shot in the head before. It was not at all a highlight of the trip. But it is important for me that i experienced it. It was one of the worse euthanasias because it took 6 shots before the cow went down. The vet was doing everything right but it just did not go as planned. Nobody had seen anything like it before. It was eye-opening.
Day 8, Tuesday: This day was not an eventful day. Not every day can be eventful. We visited one of the vet’s ‘extra farms’ on a mountain range to drop off supplies and check on the progress of a building being built. The highlight of the trip was seeing a few zebras walking by. I LOVE ZEBRAS SO MUCH.
The first week so was so far from what I was used to, I was not sure what I would do when the whole trip ended. It was exhausting, that was for sure. We were getting up anywhere from 4-7am to get out in the morning. Since it was winter time in SA, the sun set before 5:30pm. On Tuesday, Maddy and Gen, the other volunteers, went home, so it was just Margarida, Krisitina, Shannon the coordinator, and me. After everything that happened, I was certainly ready for week 2!