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Eight weeks at LEO with Floris

My name is Floris God and I have been here at LEO for close to seven weeks now; with one more week to go. When I was first deciding on what I would want to do for my gap year I was thinking of travelling. I wanted to go to some place where I had never been before, and I wanted to do it on my own. Instantaneously my dream of visiting Africa and seeing its wildlife sprung to my mind. Then I thought back on the many volunteering activities I have been a part of back in Belgium where I live and so the decision was made that I would like to travel to South Africa and volunteer at a conservation project. After some research I found LEO Africa and I booked right away. A few weeks later I was saying goodbye to my family and before I knew it I was on a flight to Johannesburg.

At an early age I became very fond of animals and how they survived in their respective habitats. Although this is not the first time I am visiting Africa, this is the first time I am literally staying in the bush and away from civilization.

After almost two months of living in the bush I have been part of a lot of different activities at LEO such as: game drives and monitoring the large quantity of unique species living in the Marataba section of the Marakele National Park, removing invasive species of plants such as the pom-pom weeds and thorny apples, and processing the data by inserting it into a computer and scrolling through camera trap photos; some of which contain awesome photos of rare and elusive creatures you would not normally see on a  monitoring drive. I have also learned a lot about the different species, how they find food, migration patterns, territorial behaviour, and their life cycle. I have also gotten the opportunity to work closely with the park’s management team, learning about even more things apart from the wildlife exclusively (maintenance of the reserve and animal health).

One of my favourite times at LEO is the day I went on a sleep out for the very first time. After packing all of our things and putting it in the trailer we would be sleeping in, five other volunteers and I headed out with Koos, our ranger, towards where we would be spending the night. On the way there we had to remove a tree from the road because an elephant had knocked it over and we couldn’t get past. A little bit further Koos stopped the car because he had seen something next to the road. It was a Pangolin, a very rare endangered animal that is the most poached creature on the entire planet. When it heard the truck it had curled up into a ball to protect itself. As a group we sat down about two meters away from it very quietly, waiting for it to start doing something. After some time, understanding we were no threat, it started moving and then slowly moved off into the bushes. We went on to our sleeping spot, had dinner and tea, and then started getting ready for bed. Suddenly, Koos says “get in the trailer now” and so we all quickly hop into it. About five seconds later we spot a lion heading in our direction. When it gets about five meters away from the trailer it stops, looks at us, and then keeps moving. It was a very intense moment and my heart was beating very fast as it was standing in the place where we had been standing literally ten seconds before. When we all finally lied down, we all looked at the sky to see the stars, and Koos told us about all the different constellations. Since there had recently been a new moon it was very dark out and so the stars could be easily seen. With an occasional shooting star flying by, everything was very beautiful; probably a night I will never forget.

One of the big things I like about LEO is the kindness and patience provided by all the staff while at base or on drive. This makes living at LEO base so much more enjoyable and allows me to continue to solidify how good of a decision it was to come here. Each game drive is ever so different and enjoyable due to the different guides: whether it’s Koos’ endless amount of knowledge or Sabrina’s adorable way of explaining things, there’s always something new to experience.

If I were ever given the opportunity to come back, I would definitely choose to do so. When I think back on my experience at LEO back home I will most definitely become sad when I realize there isn’t a game drive the next day. I would definitely recommend this project to any other person that has an interest in animals as it is an experience I will never forget about and something and a place I would be willing to come back to more than just one more time.