Beginning of January 2016 with two weeks of vacation, no one around to share another adventure with, what now? For once I found myself wondering: ‘Why not try to dedicate myself to something useful for someone else?” . In fact this is what I did.
After a careful research on the various portals offering volunteer programs of various types (work with animals, with children, educational and so on) I came across a job in direct contact with African wildlife.
A week of research later I finally decided to apply as a volunteer for a wildlife rehabilitation program in Moholoholo (feel free to have a look on their website). After getting in touch with the staff of the rehab center I booked my two weeks.
In the frenzy and excitement of the moments before each departure I immediately booked the flight from Zurich to Johannesburg, the shuttle from Hohannesburg to Hoedspruit as well as the medical visit which was fundamental to clarify all the details of health check-ups and vaccinations required to leave for South Africa (in my case I had to completed the vaccinations agains rabies and hepatitits B as well as taking the prescription for Malaria).
Foundamental to every journey has has always been the preparation. That mixed thrill of imagination about what will come and what will be lived and the unknown of leaving for a unknown destination. I advise every traveler not to understimate this process as ti will allow you to be ready for any eventuality and to be aware of any risks you will be exposed to during a trip.
Bags packer, I embark with my faithful travel companion: anxiety. I flew from Zurich to Johannesburg with the KLM company with a quick stopover in Amsterdam. Despite this stop my first time flying with KLM has been really pleasant.
After a total of 14 hours in & not in the clouds we finally land in Johannesburg. Not even at the passport control a strange feeling begun to make its way into my belly. Do you know that strange feeling as something is going to happen or should happen but you can’t explain what? That’s it.
Shall we bet that it is the suitcase? Rushing to baggage claim hoping to find all my stuff while various possible scenarios materialize in my mind about how my suitcase was thrown overboard and exploded in a firework of leggings and t-shirts at an altitude of 10,000 meters. But no: my suitcase is intact and quiet, on the tape waiting to be picked up. Well thank you KLM for taking me and my suitcase safe to destination. So, will you PLEASE stop now?
I made my way toward exit and as soon as I pass through the automatic doors that damn feeling just disappeared.. just gone. Mmh okay, better that way.
I arrive in the parking lot and look around for a person with a sign with my name on it but nothing. Did they forgot about me? I wait about 30′ and then I decide that maybe I should call the agency even though my brain was trying to convince myself that someone was coming to get me and that everything would be ok. I type the number on the phone and make to call when a taxi driver gets out of a car with a small notebook and my name written on it. What an honor, now I feel like a VIP, someone is here waiting for me! … Well not really.
Anywaysss, 1 hour delayed, I arrive at the hostel after having the worst trip ever. Despite the bad weather, my beloved taxi driver decided to opt for a wet rally that made that short trip a sort of roller coaster ride, so much so that even when I was lying down on the bed my body still felt rocking like on one of those carousels at the amusement park that you get on just because they convinced you and that you repeat mentally you will never do again. Well, luckly, fate decided it wasn’t time for me leaving the earth (at least, not yet).
I barely slept five hours that night whether for some noise outside or some for agitation.. I couldn’t decide which one was most present.
At seven o’clock the next day and the same driver of the roller coaster’s adventure accompanies me to the airport where there would be a shuttle bus to the rehabilitation center waiting for me. Luck is on my side and, on the way to the airport, we pick up a hitchhiker who would then turned out being very nice and helpful, so much so that he kept me company until the arrival of the long-awaited bus. Greeting my new friend, here I am again on the road for what would have been a journey of over six hours to Hoedspruit. The breathtaking view made those hours almost light and more enjoyable than I had expected.
As soon as I reached the center of Hoedspruit I was greeted by Moholoholo’s team that was already there waiting for me (this time for real, not like the day before at the airport). Before getting to the rehabilitation center, I stopped sipping my first drink in the company of my new adventure companions. That drink made me realized those moments of relaxation in company would then become a tradition once a week, as a reward for our work in the center, we were given a day off to enjoy the beauty of the area.
Once the ice is broken, thanks to the refreshing welcome drink, here we are in the center where we are introduced to the whole team and where we are given the first taste of what we would have done in the following weeks.
We make our first center’s tour right at dinner time of lions, leopards and lycaons. No, we weren’t their snack, although for a moment I felt like I was being thrown under the bus. Ok bad joke, let’s move on.
I was impressed on the impact of these animals in a different environment than the one I was used to in the zoos I had visited until then. Strange how the concept of a rehabilitation center like this can be easily misunderstood. You will tell me: well what is the difference between the cage of a zoo and the one of a rehab center? In the end are all cages. I can only agree with you on this, the difference lies in the objective of these centers that is to help injured/endangered animals, treat them and then release them in the wild. From here also derives the attempt to emulate inside every enclosures the natural habitat of these wonderful creatures.
Just after snack’s time we stopped by PRINCESS, the yougest cheetah mom. Princess is the youngest cheetah mama. (Noteworthy my very convinced face… It took me a while to realize that Princess was nothing more than a cat who grew up looking for affection).
The unique hidden charm of the rehab center was in the contact of this community with the surrounding nature. The shared love and passion for the preservation of their precious land and its inhabitants, whether guests of the center or not.
The key words were among the purest ones: respect and sharing of a land not only ours but in common with other majestic species.
Someday happened of leaving carcass outside of the center’s fences for other animals in the area including vultures flyig in cicles waiting for eating the next snack.
Noticing for example how many nests on these trees.
In addition to the typical animals that come to mind when thinking of Africa, the center was also home to other magnificent creatures. For example this eagle that I don’t think it liked my pampers.
Or.. the Honey badgers. Let me introduce you to the beloved Stoffel who become famous of his video where this little doodlebug attempts multiple times escaping from his enclosure. Stoffel looks sweet and innocent BUT he is smarter than you and me put together. He has no problem letting you know when he wants something.
Do not worry, you will get to know all of my new friends along the way.
After the tour I ended up in my room unpacking my stuff and getting ready for dinner (this time for us bipeds). Unaware of what was happening in the bathroom, I was already fantasising of what the meal would be. I then realized my roommate was taking longer for a “quick” shower, maybe she ate something bad.. who knows? Maybe not. Indeed.. I would love to know the Genius who invented the doors in South Africa I’m pretty sure Stoffel learned from him how to escape from the fence, smartass. A bathroom that closes from the inside but then can no longer be opened except from the outside. Don’t worry, in the end we saved my roommate and nope.. she didn’t eat anything badly (at least not yet).
Let’s go back to the reason for my trip. First night gone, it was time to roll up my sleeves. We met the rehab center’s boss who assigned us in a group. I ended up in group number 4 composed in its turn of 4 person (me included) and each of us had different duties. Our morning routine usually started at 6am till 08:30 am and it went more or less like this:
1. Cleaning water bowls – often being interrupted by a fluffy curious animal.. Oh hello, good morning!
2. Cleaning Owl’s cage – As you can see she wasn’t convinced of my presence either. Nowadays I’m still wondering what’s my problem with birds.
Oh no Giorgy.. why.. damn.. whatever.. anyways, this volatile was staring at me every morning. Well, just imagine myself at 6 in the morning when my brain was still sleeping even less trasmit good vibes in order to get along with the bird.
In short, he wanted to escape and I couldn’t let him go. (Oh no.. Giorgy again.. what’s your problem?).
3. Cleaning Vultures cage – Yup, birds.. again! Jealous uhm? If I were you, I wouldn’t. Not for vultures at least. If the owl didn’t appreciate my presence, I think the vultures loved having us in the cages instead. This was the hardest part of cleaning.. spiteful animals by nature that surely would have made your day by watching amused us, from the outside of the cage, poor souls who chased them to recover stolen buckets. Or the other way around: me heading for the hills because they were trying whether biting me (I’ve told you already I am not edible!) or using me as a litter box. Might I say litter if using it was Herbert (the vulture).. instead of sand was me, the poor human who was trying to do her job?! (How nice uhm?). Well, I still don’t know if Herbet & co. liked me, but I know for sure working with them was very hard and interactive. The half-skinned vulture cubs were cute, they just deserved all the love, not like you HERBERT!!
4. Cleaning owlets (yes, baby owls) – Cute birds finally! This cage was fullifield of five small feathered wads of which I don’t remember the names but they filled my late morning with happiness (take a leaf from them Herbet!). In addition to cleaning, we had to look for all fine tenants each time entering/exiting the cage to make sure we hadn’t lost any around. And here is where I learned to play hide and seek. If I could go back to elementary school you would never find me, LOL.
5. Cleaning Honey badger’s cages – at this point you are wondering if I was doing anything other than cleaning.. oh, good morning Stoffel! Have you had shower today? You should know that honey badger have this incredible ability to make the environment around them smell pungent and not at all pleasant.
In order to cleaning Stoffel’s palace we had to move he and his roomies in the cage nearby. As I said before they are smarter than me and also much more cleaver so this task always ended in a patient timing game about who screwed the other one first.
Muggles vs Badgers (Hufflepuff, LOL if you know what I mean): 0 – 1.
It’s useless lie: they won every time so we got late for breakfast (thanks). Maybe if Minerva McGonagall had also given me a Nimbus 2000 to Quidditch I would have been the winner. Oh no, wrong story.
Eeeeh brerakfast finally (Stoffel’s delays apart), best feeling ever as a rewards of our morning routine! Every morning we were responsible of cleaning while late in the afternoon we passed by our friends to feed them.. that we would have cleaned the next morning… It’s the cyyyyrcleee offf liiiiiiiiiiife.
Right after breakfast, we all met at the clinic to discuss on what there was still to do. Between 10am and 4 pm I used to babysitting… let me introduce you my babies:
BABA, the little lion king – Although Baba was not his real name, that’s what we all called him inside the center. This baby has been found wandering alone in the desert. Moholoholo’s crew caught him and took it to the rehab center in order to get him the necessary care and to grown him well. In my opinion he is not gonna be release because he had to much contact with human being therefore too dependent on its presence. I am not an expert.. unfortunately I doubt Baba will ever become a ferocious hunter and he would probably ending up trying to get food in the surrounding villages/city nearby as he is used to it.
It’s cute though, isn’t it? Look at him cuddled up like a kitten.
NTABA, the 3-month-“baby” Rhino – this little huge baby lost his mom at an early age. The baby has always been very emotional and in search of attention, in fact I still remember how just left alone began to cry in search of company. Like every puppy, he loved to play and roll in the mud. Watching him rolling in the dirt took me back in time to those rainy autumn days, when my mom sent me to school in colored plastic boots and I came home full of mud and leaves all the way down to my underwear. How many swearwords (thanks mom for the tips) I heard every time while Mom yelled at me because I had ruined my new clothes. I always promised her that it would be the last time and at every rainy day it would happen it all over again.
In addition to the romance of lost days, taking care of Ntaba has taught me that rhinos are easily susceptible. Ask Mike… The poor man has made the grave mistake of deciding to stand in front of Ntaba who has loaded him. They are docile animals, contrary to what is thought, but if they feel threatened or challenged, they counterattack. In the end Mike got away with a blue eye and a few stitches, nothing serious apart from the fright.
As I said.. he loves mud!
Ntaba has been here! Ahah
VELVET – this little monkey with the sweetest little eyes on earth has been found in tears in her dead mother’s arms, she didn’t stay with us for long either. The first days in the center she cried constantly looking for her mother, the only way to calm her down was taking her in your arms. The little girl was then taken to a rehabilitation center not far away specialized in monkey care. It will be hard to forget the sweetness in the eyes of this frightened little creature who only wanted her mother.
ALVARA, ADORA & GORGEOUS, baby Cheetahs – lovely and fearsome kittens these three cheetah cubs were definitely cause for big smiles during my days.
These wild little creatures certainly did not refrain from behaving as in nature. Docile only in appearance, sometimes they even decided to put their fingernails or teeth on your skin. Probably with an appetizing taste I almost got attacked by Alvara, I got immobilized being in front of this little furious Cheetah, fortunately blocked in time by Jace, another of the volunteers of the center. Probably it was a playful attack anyway, the wild of these soft puppies remains fervid.
OWLS – Apart from babysitting Jace, Nina and I were responsible to take care of 3 Owl.
We were responsible of feeding them every 3 hours for a total of six times a day. As you can see, my little friend did not always cooperative, in fact, he did not eat at all willingly and this is where we intervened.
Tou-Tou, the owl under Nina’s responsibility, instead suffered from the problems caused by falling from a tree during a storm. Thanks to the help of the center’s team, a few weeks after the accident, he started to stand upright again, something unthinkable on the day of his recovery.
The third owl, the one cared for by Jace, was what anyone would describe as a soft and fluffy interactive soft toy!
Always at 10 a.m., babysitting aside, we were in charge of cleaning the different cages and feeding the hungriest animals such as lions, hyenas and cheetahs. A hard work especially for me that at the time I did not go to the gym. Do you have any idea how much a lion’s lunch weighs? Probably more than I do.
I still remember the day when towards the time of our dinner came a truck full of bloody and delicious meals for grown up kittens. It took about an hour to hand-deliver every “morsel” to the freezer. The smell of carcass meat was on me for days; I could smell it on my clothes, in my hair, on my hands, and despite several shower attempts, that feeling wouldn’t go away. To think that before I left on this trip I was barefoot and barefoot since I was so picky…
Working closely with animals and beginning to get to know their nature and their docile sides sometimes we forget the ferocity and the instincts that move them. In fact one morning one of the lions in one of the cages was injured, probably because of a tiff with the roomie. The poor animal had to be taken off the cage and moved to a quieter and safer enclosure to be treated. The moving of a lion involves the injection of a sleeping pill, not one of the most beautiful things to assist because this is shot from a distance by waffle. In order to have effect we waited at least 15 minutes. Once moved to his new home the feline has had the opportunity to recover and to be cured before being reintroduced among his companions.
The days at the rehabilitation center were always intense and full of new emotions, also given us by the moments of leisure and pleasure we were given for our work. Some of which I will hardly forget. It happened that in the afternoon we had some free time which meant we could discover the wonders of the area. One day, just outside the center, we met hippos and zebras that we were able to feed. Don’t you find that this zebra and I have the same smile? Say cheeeseeee!