After nearly twenty-four hours of travel, I landed in the Johannesburg Airport. My excitement overcame my nerves while driving to the backpacker’s hotel to meet my twelve new classmates for the next three months. Recollecting on this moment, I could not have comprehended how these people, brought together from around the United States and South Africa would soon become so much more than my classmates. They are my collaborators, supporters, and incredible friends.
The Skukuza Science Leadership Initiative (SSLI) in Skukuza, Kruger National Park was our home and base location for the program. Though safely surrounded by a fence, we fell asleep and woke to the calls of hyenas and lions in the distance, showered in the presence of kudu and waterbuck, and consciously protected our bananas from the local vervet monkeys. Our lectures on savanna ecology, evolution, or statistical analyses supplemented the knowledge we gained while working in the field. In groups of three to four we completed long-term research projects with topics ranging from microplastic pollution in river systems to differences in the species richness of birds between sites of varying levels of controlled herbivory.
We left the park and drove to the village of Venda in the north east corner of South Africa. In groups of three we said goodbyes to our friends and departed for four days in rural homestays. Equipped with my camera, two pairs of clothes, and a toothbrush I walked through the gate into our homestay family’s yard in the Sanari village. For the next four days we learned to cook traditional meals of pap with spinach or mopane worms, collected and carried wood (on our heads) from the bush, and spent many hours each day playing with over fifty local kids. Each night we fell asleep on hand woven grass mats and woke to the rooster’s call and the chiming of goat bells. Even with a wonderful translator, language remained a barrier, but the human ability to connect over a smile or gesture became profound. Being surrounded by people filled with generosity, pride, joy, and an incredibly rich sense of community has touched me in ways I have yet to realize.
My time in South Africa with OTS was informative, fun, and truly life changing. I highly recommend this program for anyone with a sense of adventure, love for learning, and drive to connect to people and nature alike.
What is your advice to future travelers on this program?
You may think 3 months is a long time. It's not. Get up early, go on every game drive, take walks when you can, and get to deeply know your fellow classmates, instructors, and support staff. Make every day worthwhile! Push yourself to try new things (like rock climbing or eating mopane worms), engage fully, and learn all that you can because you are surrounded by incredible people and places.