Written by Cathryn Gill, conservation educator and crew member JWP01 May 2019
“I’m searching for the spirit of the great heart to stand and keep me by, I’m searching for the spirit of the great heart under African skies”. Johnny Clegg’s emotive anthem belts out from my Spotify playlist as I’m packing for an expedition. To say I was excited to be heading back to Africa after five years would be an understatement.
In 2016 I’d read about the Elephant Ignite Expedition, the first of Carla Geyser’s epic African journeys – an all female crew travelling 10,000 km through 10 African countries raising money for conservation NGOs, raising awareness for the plight of African wildlife and raising the profile of women working with wildlife. At the time I wrote in the margin of my journal “blue sky society trust”. Then life happened. Fast forward to November 2018 and Carla opens applications for Journeys with Purpose (JWP01) May 2019 – fundraising for Elephants Alive and the expedition being to collar elephants in Gilé National Reserve, Mozambique. Without hesitation I applied.
On 15 March 2019 Cyclone Idai hit the Mozambique coast making landfall 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.
Day 1 of the expedition is a bright, clear May day in Johannesburg, but not as crisp as I had expected for this time of the year. I make my way to Midrand to meet Carla and Bella at the vehicle hire place where we are picking up our second vehicle for our small crew of five. Poor Eddie my taxi driver is trying his best to get me where I need to be but the navigation app is having us going round in circles.
We eventually find it and the next thing I am hugging Carla and Bella like we have known each other forever.
The amazing Cat arrives as well, toting intriguing bags of camera equipment and a sunny smile. We are on the road to OR Tambo to collect our last crew member and I am 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 is confirmed when we meet Remke, this willowy blonde in the arrivals hall. More hugs exchanged and its time to get out of the city.
Our convoy is 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 dubs our hire vehicle ‘Charles’ and we are good to go.
That drive from Johannesburg to Hoedspruit via Dullstroom, the Abel Erasmus Pass and through the JG Strydom tunnel was a special wander down memory lane for me. That moment when you shoot through the tunnel and the whole Lowveld stretches before you – magical.
We were now in African bush proper. There is so much life everywhere – even hurtling along those main tarred roads you catch a glimpse of a giraffe or a troop of vervet monkey playing in the trees on the verge.
And then when the driving stops and you step out into this incredible energy its like being plugged into a fast charge source after being on very low battery. But it is not a frenetic energy, it is a quiet, calm reconnection with life.
The next 13 days held so many delightful wildlife moments and new landscapes to explore.
The mixed bushwillow plains around the Hoedspruit area with its stunning escarpment backdrop providing dramatic vistas at every turn. The autumn colours of the mopane bush around the Letaba area in Kruger National Park. The top of the world rocky outcrops of the Lebombo Mountains in Eswatini.
The coastal plains, undulating grassy dunes and tangled forest of the Maputo Special Reserve in Mozambique. The clear, blue waters of Maputo Bay edged in mangroves. We saw so many species – insects, reptiles, birds, and of course all the iconic mammals.
Special moments with elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard, spotted hyena, giraffe, zebra, impala, nyala, kudu, hippo, a pod of endangered humpback dolphins and so much more.
I think our leopard count was five! The one lion sighting was of a lioness up a tree!
For me the rhino sightings were extra special as they are my spirit animal. I think Cat was okay with our cat count as they are her favourites. Remke loved the ellies and the monkeys. And I think Carla and Bella got a kick out everything wild we saw.
All of us aware of the privilege to encounter this wildlife at all.
But the highlight of it all was spending time with all these people from various conservation organisations. Hearing their stories and sometimes joining them in aspects of their work.
A huge thank you to Dr Michelle Henley, founder of Elephants Alive for her time. Also, for access to her charming team who were so welcoming and informative in sharing with us the incredibly valuable work they are doing. I have learned so much more about elephants than I ever knew before.
It was also so inspiring to see the absolute dedication of everyone at Elephants Alive as they focus on creative solutions to tackle human-elephant conflict.
Meeting Craig Spencer and some of the Black Mambas was a privilege. The Black Mambas are a mostly female anti-poaching unit set up by Craig. This is not just about reducing poaching but a focus on community upliftment.
We also spent a stunning morning at a local primary school with Lewyn of the Bush Babies Environmental Education programme connected with the Black Mambas.
This is such an inspiring model of empowering communities to take ownership of conservation issues in their own backyard as well as role modelling for the next generation to ensure long-term effectiveness.
We also got to spend time at the South Africa Wildlife College with the astute, eloquent Sboniso Phakathi who gave us a thought-provoking presentation of the programmes there. Meeting Precious and the dogs at the K9 unit was such a highlight.
In Eswatini we met with Mr Maduze Dlamini and Nomsa Mabila of the Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area. We experienced wonderful hospitality from them and the staff at the community camps we visited – Shewula Mountain Camp and Mhlumeni Rest Camp.
Thea Litschka, the famous snake lady of Snakes of Eswatini, gave us a fascinating insight into snake handling and what is happening with managing snake bites in rural areas.
In Mozambique we had time and conversation with Miguel Gonçalves, the warden of Maputo Elephant Reserve, and Alessandro Fusari, the head of Wildlife, Conservation and Tourism at Gilé National Reserve. Their indomitable spirit and passion for conserving the natural heritage of Southern Africa is absolutely awe-inspiring.
On our last night in Maputo, Trang Nguyen joined us for dinner. What a dynamo! Everyone needs to check out her TED talk.
What an absolute honour to have spent time in the company of these beautiful humans and to have them share their stories with us. I am so grateful to have had this experience. Thank you so much Carla, Bella, Remmie and Cat for being the best crew ever to share the road with. My cup runneth over.
So what now? My purpose is to champion these stories in my corner of the world. To lean into the hope that this conservation collective can keep the darkness of the worst case scenarios at bay.
I will definitely be back… I have found my tribe.