Safari with purpose

Image: Cat MacRae

Words by Cathryn Gill

Five adventurous ladies set out on an overland expedition to visit some out of the way places in north-eastern South Africa, northern Eswatini and southern Mozambique over 14 days. Our safari with purpose was to immerse ourselves in the African bush to soak up some Mama Africa time… Oh so good for the soul!

Safari is the Swahili word for an overland journey. In the past this word became synonymous with hunting the big five in East Africa. These days it is more about observing and photographing those same big five in the wild places of Africa.

But what if there was more to an African travel experience. One that included the adventure of the open road and spending time getting to know some of the vital wildlife conservation and community upliftment work that is taking place in this part of the world. Ethical travel in the best sense – being able to really see where your money and support is going.

Turns out there is. The Blue Sky Society Trust’s Journeys with Purpose. Journeys with Purpose is the brainchild of Carla Geyser, founder of the Blue Sky Society Trust. She is the dynamo who has already led two very successful all-female overland expeditions. In 2016 the Elephant Ignite Expedition, the first of these epic African journeys saw an all-female crew travelling 16,000km through 10 African countries raising money for conservation NGOs, creating awareness for the plight of African wildlife and highlighting the profile of women working in conservation. And then more recently the ‘Rise of the Matriarch’ 2018 expedition where another all-female crew travelled 11,235km through 4 Southern Africa Countries focusing on human wildlife co-existence awareness, women empowerment and youth conservation education.

Image: Carla Geyser

The goal is to raise money and support for vital wildlife conservation and community empowerment projects off the beaten track in Southern Africa. Offering an ethical, authentically African travel experience with the opportunity for crew members to meet and spend a little time with the people working these projects while at the same time being immersed in the African bush…. The only way to get around? Overland. An inspired idea! And why I signed up.

And so on a cool, clear May day five adventurous ladies set out on an overland expedition to visit some out of the way places in north eastern South Africa, northern Eswatini and southern Mozambique over 14 days. Our Journey with Purpose was to immerse ourselves in the African bush to soak up some Mama Africa time… Oh so good for the soul.

I am not sure how to explain this to anyone who hasn’t been to Africa. If you have you’ll know what I mean. She gets under your skin and into your veins and lets you know when you’ve been away too long. The land, the air, the vegetation, it all hums with life and reverberates with an energy. It is primal and exhilarating while at the same time calm and grounding.

The other part of our purpose was to get up close with the people with their boots on the ground, involved in wildlife conservation and community upliftment projects off the beaten track in this part of the world. All of this intrepidness was ultimately to raise money, awareness and support for these projects.

Image: Carla Geyser

What brought us all together on this particular expedition was a shared passion for African elephants and their conservation. The money raised from our Journey supported Elephants Alive! This NGO is headed by researcher with heart, Dr Michelle Henley, a strong matriarch in her own right and a true eco-warrior.

Originally the intention was to head to northern Mozambique and be part of an elephant collaring project in Gilé National Park collaborating with Gilé’s conservation staff, Elephants Alive and Wildlife Vets. The universe had other plans. On 15 March 2019 Cyclone Idai hit the Mozambique coast making land fall at Beira and causing devastation up and the down the coast as well as inland. JWP01 going ahead in May seemed doomed. But Carla got straight onto Plan B and JWP01 South eventuated.

But let’s go back to that May day and start at the beginning. I made my way to Midrand to meet Carla and Bella at the vehicle hire place where we were picking up our second vehicle for our small crew of five. Poor Eddie, my Johannesburg taxi driver, tried his best to get me where I need to be but the navigation app had us going round in circles. We eventually found it and the next thing I am hugging Carla and Bella like we have known each other forever. The amazing Cat then arrived as well, toting intriguing bags of camera equipment and a sunny smile. We were on the road to OR Tambo to collect our last crew member and I was already thinking this is too good to be true – these beautiful souls I am instantly drawn to I get to take the road less travelled with?! My growing suspicion I have found my tribe was confirmed when we meet Remke, this stunning willowy blonde in the arrivals hall. More hugs were exchanged and it was time to get out of the city.

Our convoy was made up of Dora, the 22 year old TDi Defender short wheelbase landy well kitted out and beautifully branded with her pink accessories. She has oodles of character just like proud ‘mom’, Carla. Bella quickly dubbed our hire vehicle ‘Charles’ and we were good to go.

We left Jo’burg as quickly as possible and spent the next 14 days exploring with Dora. We used two-way radio to keep in comms between Dora and Charles along the way. The radio banter began before we even found our way out of OR Tambo to find the N12! By the time we stopped in Dullstroom for lunch on that first day us five girls had bonded like sisters over the African wildlife we are passionate about and the music we love. By the time we got to night three round the campfire at Wild Olive Tree Camp, we were officially a tribe and will be friends for life. Time in the wilds of Africa has that effect on people, I have found.

We took the N12 out of Johannesburg which becomes the N4 at Emalahleni. At Belfast we took the left turn onto the R540 and headed into Dullstroom for lunch. Then through Lydenburg/Mashishing onto the R36. I love this stretch of road has we head to the edge of the world – the Drakensberg escarpment. The landscape since we left Jo’burg is true highveld grasslands, changing at Dullstroom to include some intriguing rock formations. But on the other side of Lydenburg as we got to the Abel Erasmus Pass the vegetation is almost alpine in places and the geology dramatic. Then we shot through the JG Strydom tunnel and all the Lowveld stretched before us. The air changed prickling with the energy of this mixed bushwillow bushveld – magical! It’s autumn and the reds, oranges and golds of the vegetation is captivating in the near winter light. Everywhere you look there’s life. A troop of baboon forage on the roadside. Yellowbilled Hornbills in their signature flight from bushwillow to bushwillow. Pawpaws, oranges and avocados fill the roadside stalls with colour and make the tummy rumble. All the while those majestic Drakensberg mountains provide a dramatic backdrop to our scene. We crossed the Blyde River as we headed into Hoedspruit and then towards the APNR to find our stop for the night – Ndabushi Lodge.

Image: Cat MacRae

When we arrived at Ndabushi we were met by the indomitable Dr Michelle Henley, co-founder, director and principal researcher of Elephants Alive! Once we had settled into our lovely cottages and the sun had set, Michelle took some time to share with us what her ongoing research is all about. She also introduced us to her charming team, some of whom we will get to know a little more over the coming days as we are invited to join them tracking radio collared elephants in the nearby reserves. We also gained some insight into the creative ways this amazing group of people are using to mitigate human-elephant conflict like using bees. Check out their website for more info. All this awesomeness was followed by a delicious dinner in the boma under the stars… and just like that our first day on expedition came to an end. I fell asleep listening to the scuffling sounds of my little mouse friend in the thatch roof and the bats pinging their way across the night sky. Bliss…

Up early next morning with sounds of the hyena not too far from camp and the noisy francolin in camp. A good cup of strong, black coffee, vehicles packed and off we went. We headed north towards Ba-Phalaborwa where we were due to meet Lewyn Maefala, the project manager for ‘The Bush Babies Environmental Education Programme’. Lewyn is a sunny, vivacious character who introduced us to a group of learners she works with at Maseke Primary School. We had such a rewarding morning with these kids! We also got to see Bella in action, another passionate conservation educator. Her flow learning techniques were fun and inspiring.

Image: Carla Geyser

We left there buzzing. Time to get back on the road. We headed back to Hoedspruit with a quick stop at the Elephants Alive offices at Mica Village for some honey tasting and great stories from Robin Cook, Elephants Alive researcher. Tummies were grumbling by now so we found the Wild Dogz burger bar in Hoedspruit for some yummy lunch. Even our meal had a conservation focus as these guys give money from their burger business to African Wild Dog conservation in Kruger National Park. Next on the agenda was a little shopping for supplies before heading to our next stop in Balule Nature Reserve.

We arrived at the Transfrontier Africa Camp in time to soak up some bush sights and sounds and great views out to the east across Kruger. I spent the afternoon enjoying the sunshine and watching the birds. A gorgeous group of White Helmet Shrikes chattered around me for ages closely followed by a shiny Scimitarbill.

That night we got to meet the charismatic Craig Spencer, founder of the mostly female Black Mamba anti-poaching unit. He is a truly unique character and his take on community upliftment is truly insightful. We then got to meet a couple of the Black Mambas. It was a real honour to spend a little time with them as they shared their stories with us.

Another perfect African day. This time drifting to sleep to the lions roaring and the hyena calling. Cat and I shared a room that night but we were not destined for the perfect sleep as what seemed like an army of cute, little mice scampered around the room and across us in bed presumably in search of tasty treats. Alas, we did not provide but their search was persistent so we were wakeful.

Image: Carla Geyser

An early start as we had a date with some elephant. Back on the road to the APNR again to meet up with Ronnie and Joel, Elephants Alive researchers. We left Dora and Charles to rest up as we got into the safari vehicle, tools for elephant tracking in tow and a picnic lunch packed. This was definitely a highlight of the trip for me. I learned so much from these two talented individuals about the important work they are doing monitoring these amazing creatures – their movements, their social behaviours. There is nothing that compares to sitting quietly surrounded by a large breeding herd of elephant rumbling to each other. You know they are keenly aware of you but seem totally unperturbed, secure in the knowledge this time the humans mean them no harm. A truly magical moment. And our perfect leopard sighting put the cherry on this cake of a day. This delightful young she-leopard just waltzed onto the road in front of us and simply went about her business as we tried desperately to snap the perfect pic.

But Day 3 was not done with us yet. After bidding Ronnie and Joel a very fond farewell, we drove to Wild Olive Tree Camp. This is a beautiful camp run by the Mnisi community hidden in some gorgeous vegetation right on the border with Kruger National Park, near Orpen Gate. We were shown to our tents. Number 2 was my spot for the night nestled in this intriguing bush with prolific birdlife. To name a few – Orange-breasted Bush Shrike, Purple-crested Lourie and an absolute favourite of mine, the Paradise Flycatcher. Sunset from the lookout platform was followed by dinner and excellent conversation round the fire. We were joined for dinner by Sboniso Phakathi from the South African Wildlife College. This bright, eloquent man honoured us with his story that evening. I want to pause here to say that while it has been wonderful to focus on an all-female crew and to highlight the work of women in conservation, it has been equally inspiring and uplifting to meet men like Sboniso along the way. This evening proved quite profound for me. A feeling of absolute peace like I haven’t felt since I was a child. Feeling truly at home and among my tribe. And all this to the soundtrack of the Fiery-necked Nightjars and the calls of the Black-backed Jackal.

Image: Cat MacRae

The next day started with a leisurely breakfast carefully watched by the local troop of Vervet Monkeys just waiting for us to let our guard of the breakfast table slip… cheeky monkeys. We then made our way to the South African Wildlife College to once again meet up with Sboniso. He spent the morning showing us around the various units of the College. We thoroughly enjoyed meeting Precious and the lovely dogs of the K9 unit. I think most of us agreed we would be too soft to survive field ranger training. Or that might just have been me. But the highlight for me was hearing Sboniso speak about the project he manages – the Rural Initiative for Sustainable Environment.

All too soon it is time for more farewells and we are on the road again. This time heading for Kruger – a place of magical childhood memories for me. We spent one night at Letaba in a cottage on the river front and the second night at Crocodile Bridge camp. Both days in Kruger we got our big five ticked off along with so many other wonderful sightings – like baby hyena, a lioness up a tree and the biggest leopard I’ve ever seen. I was enthralled by the autumn colours of the Mopane especially in the early morning light. We couldn’t resist a last bumble before leaving Kruger so we took the dirt road that hugs the Crocodile River to exit at Malelane Gate. Good choice – three stunning leopard sightings as well as elephant and rhino, even a couple of lioness in the distance! Time to say goodbye to South Africa for now and explore a new country.

Image: Carla Geyser

After a stop to top up fuel and supplies in Malelane we headed for eSwatini. We crossed at Mananga border post. The road winds up into the Lubombo Mountains passed bright green sugar cane plantations. The bush here is filled with broad-leaved trees alive with bird song. Once off the tar, the roads a fine red dust turning everything on the verges a rusty orange. Our first night in eSwatini we found ourselves on top of the world at Shewula Mountain Camp staying in charming stone rondavels. The views were simply spectacular. The staff were so welcoming and the cultural performance by the local youth was a lovely touch especially as the sun went down with the stone buildings as a backdrop. It was here we first met the enigmatic Mr Maduze Dlamini of the Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area.

Then off to Hlane National Park where we stayed in a cottage at Ndlovu Camp. Here we experienced a great afternoon game drive and moody bush walk the following morning with our guide extraordinaire, Senzo. Lots of interesting rhino and elephant sightings. Also a couple of lion. Lovely herds of impala and nyala dotted the landscape as well. And, of course, the birdlife was great says me, the twitcher. I will remember this particular evening on expedition for the delicious meal and time with the crew round the fire. We shared stories and played silly games. Nothing beats conversing and laughing round the fire under the African night sky.

Image: Carla Geyser

The next day after our lovely morning walk in the mist, we packed up Dora and Charles again. After just a short drive we arrived at the Simunye Country Club where we had a lunch appointment with the snake lady of Eswatini, Thea Litscha-Koen. Over a yummy lunch Thea had us all fascinated with the story of how she got interested in snake handling. And now the work she does with educating people in eSwatini communities about snakes and preventing snake bites. She is also working with the WHO to improve access to antivenom especially in isolated rural areas.

Later that afternoon we drove back into the Lubombo Mountains. Our last night in eSwatini we spent at Mhlumeni Bush Camp, another community camp in the Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area with absolutely stunning views. This camp has so much character. Another excellent night round the fire enjoying a proper potjie dinner with the camp staff, Mr Maduze and the delightful Nomsa Mabila. Nomsa also works for the Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area and had arranged the next day’s school visit for us. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Mhlumeni School to hand out wildlife educational booklets to the 288 children. This year 40 000 educational booklets will be handed out to children in rural areas adjacent to wildlife areas thanks to the Tanglewood Foundation and our courier partners, City Logistics.

Image: Carla Geyser

Next stop Mozambique Special Reserve. We crossed the border at Goba and drove to Futi Gate. Time for Dora to show us her moves. This reserve is coastal lowlands with a mix of coastal forest, wetlands and grassy dunes. The roads are tracks of soft, soft white sand. At the gate we dropped the tyre pressure to 1.5 and Dora took to the sand like a pro. Our first night in the reserve we camped out in the staff village. This gave us a chance to meet up with Miguel Gonçalves, the park warden, who told us all about the reserve’s history and today’s conservation challenges in the area.

The next morning we got on the road quite early to tackle the long, slow, sandy drive to Santa Maria. What a beautiful landscape and we saw a surprising amount of wildlife – elephant, giraffe, nyala, impala, zebra, reedbuck, red duiker, hippo, crocodile. And yes, I’m going to say it again lots of birds! Our base for the next two days was Bemugis. Our accommodation here was a three storey bungalow right on the edge of the mangroves with simply gorgeous views over Maputo Bay towards Inhaca Island. Best morning coffee view ever! We loved being on the edge of Maputo Bay so much we stayed three nights. So much to explore and see. A highlight would be the pod of humpback dolphins we saw on our boat cruise around Inhaca Island. Not to mention the most amazing sunsets from the beach all three nights. It was really special to have this particular space and time for a bit of reflection – starting to process all we had experienced so far. Then all the way back to Futi Gate on those sandy tracks. Lots to see along the way and, of course, the all-important lake side last coffee stop of the expedition.

Image: Carla Geyser

All too soon it was time to head back to the city. We were amazed as we drove over the brand new Maputo Bridge which cut our journey time from the south significantly shorter. This bridge and the road that leads to it such a contrast with the poverty still so evident around it. Dora navigated the crazy Maputo traffic with ease and we were back in the noise and the bustle of urban Africa.

Our last night together was spent at the Palmeiras B&B in central Maputo. This lovely oasis was the perfect spot for one last meeting with some wonderful characters involved in wildlife conservation in Mozambique. Here we were joined for dinner pool side by Alessandro Fusari, the head of Wildlife, Conservation and Tourism at Gilé National Reserve, and Trang Nguyen from the Wildlife Conservation Society. Their indomitable spirit and passion for conserving the natural heritage of Southern Africa is absolutely awe-inspiring. And Trang is such a dynamo! Everyone needs to check out her TED talk.

We stuck with our safari with purpose to the end. A relatively short expedition perhaps, but for us crew a powerful and profound experience that has and will inspire us for years to come. For me particularly, this journey held significance. I read a lot and try to keep up to date with what is happening in conservation is this part of the world so dear to my heart. But there’s knowing and there’s knowing. There’s seeing and there’s seeing. I once read this beautiful proverb of the Asaro tribe in Papua New Guinea “Knowledge is only rumour until it is in the muscle”. This rings so true after a journey like this. Experience is an action, being face to face with these eco-warriors we have met on this trip is an action. This action translates into real knowledge and understanding.

So where to from here? My purpose now is to champion these stories in my corner of the world. To lean into the hope I feel, that this conservation collective can keep the darkness of the worst-case scenarios at bay.

Image: Isabel Wolf-Gillespie

Asante sana, Siyabonga, Inkomu, Ke a leboga, Thank you to Carla, Bella, Remke and Cat. It was an honour to share the road less travelled with you. And Dora and Charles too, of course.

If you have a longing for an authentic African experience. If you have an open heart and mind for the road less travelled. If you are interested in ethical travel and want to be secure in the knowledge your tourism dollar is making real impact. Then sign up for a Blue Sky Society Trust Journey with Purpose. JWP02 is scheduled for September – heading to northern Mozambique on the original elephant collaring project in Gilé National Reserve. JWP03 and JWP04 head to Zambia.

If you would like to find out more about these adventures contact Carla on [email protected] or follow @blueskysociety on social media.

Images supplied

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