Two years ago I approached Mr Campbell and told him my desire to take some pupils on an Opwall Expedition and fortunately he said ‘yes’. It’s a daunting but exciting thing to speak to a group of students and parents and describe to them your plans for an expedition. There was a real excitement to travel into a game reserve to study and carry out research on elephants and the opportunity to see so many of the ‘BIG 5’. There were some nervous faces at the prospect of learning to dive but also the chance to swim with dolphins, rays and even the popularly misportrayed villain of the sea, sharks! Pupils, whilst in South Africa, would learn about the misconceptions surrounding these beautiful and graceful creatures.
As a member of staff I couldn’t be more proud of the 18 students I took. For two years they worked hard as individuals and team members, to raise money and prepare themselves. Over 16 days they have supported and bonded with one another so successfully. Staff from both sites have commented that their attitude, personalities and behaviour were exceptional and that not only were they their favourite group of the season but that their attitudes and actions brought the best out in them. The students inspired and motivated staff to give them the best possible experience.
Whilst at the terrestrial site students carried out various transects on plants, mammals and birds. They learned so much about the plight of conservation in the area but also the huge impact their research can have on that area and what benefits it will bring about. The dive site took everyone out of their comfort zone, not only in diving to such depths but being surrounded by animals with ‘terrifying’ but maybe not deserved reputations. Students met and bonded with girls and boys from the other groups and enhanced each other’s experience.
Finally I would like to thank all the students. Each student has pushed themselves to their limits and have my utmost respect for that. As I said before it’s daunting taking a group on an expedition like this but their maturity, guile and sheer determination has amazed me. They all have made our job as staff so much easier. Mrs Marr and Mr Old have been exceptional over the expedition. They have not only guided but offered their support and time to aid each student, a huge thanks must go to them. I hope this is an experience all the students will never forget. I hope that each one of them has grown in confidence, and expanded their knowledge. They are now the generation that will have to inspire others to look after and protect our wonderful planet. I’ve used a quote quite a few times whilst away, ‘moment to memories’ These moments will make lasting memories for all the students. I hope now that these memories will be their stepping stone to create moments that are opportunities to promote and conserve nature in all its wonder.
Thank you to all the students for making this expedition an amazing success.
Mr M Hughes
The first week of our expedition was spent in Struwig Game Reserve, Balule, carrying out several different conservation research tasks. These included: vegetation surveys, where we looked at the different species of trees and grasses and how they had been damaged; bird counts, where we recorded the different species of bird that we saw and heard; game transects, where we identified and recorded different game species seen in the area (including their age and sex) and marula tree surveys, where we identified marula trees and recorded the extent to which they had been damaged. The purpose of this research was largely linked to the impact of the elephant population in the game reserve as there is the issue of elephant overpopulation in Balule and the wider Kruger National Park. Each of these research techniques contributed to our understanding of elephant impact in a different way. For example, the large numbers of elephants can lead to excessive impact on the vegetation, particularly the marula trees as elephants debranch, debark or uproot the trees all of which can cause the trees to die. The large numbers of elephants also cause high feeding pressures which in turn puts pressure on other vegetation. By directly monitoring feeding impact on vegetation (in the vegetation survey) and its knock-on effects to the wildlife, such as birds and game, we assisted the reserve managers to better understand and evaluate the carrying capacity of the area and how to manage their elephant populations to maintain a healthy and diverse ecosystem.
Our first week, included loads of fun activities throughout the week which further improved the experience! The camp was right next to a river where every day we would see various animal species come and drink and bathe in the river. These ranged from small impalas (which to the natives would be the equivalent of us seeing a sheep) to huge African elephants of which we couldn’t get enough! During down times we would either sit and relax or take part in competitive football and frisbee games with the rangers and other schools which lead to new friendships for all! The campsite had an outdoor swimming pool which excited us until we found out we were not allowed in it because it was freezing! But by the end of the week some of us couldn’t resist and Ellie being Ellie decided to jump in fully-clothed! She claims this was part of the treasure hunt, but we all knew otherwise! Overall the first week in South Africa was an amazing experience. It changed the way we thought about the species living there and showed us how little time we have left with some of these amazing creatures due to the devastation of poaching.
We arrived at Sodwana Bay after a long bus journey from the Kruger for our second week in South Africa. For the first two days, we learnt the basic practical skills needed to complete an open water dive safely. The temperature of the pool encouraged us to be quick learners; let’s just say it wasn’t the warmest! However, once we arrived at the beach on our third day, we forgot all about the cold pool as this was paradise. White sand, clear water and a little café from which you could look out onto the horizon and witness one of the great spectacles that nature has to offer – Humpback wales leaping out of the water! As it was migration season for the wales, this became a regular sight from shore. But that didn’t take away from the thrill of witnessing it first-hand. We took part on 5 open water dives and came face-to-face with all sorts of wonderful creatures: sea turtles, sting rays and a wide-diversity of tropical fish. While out snorkelling, we were even greeted by a pair of dolphins which only added to our countless number of incredible experiences while in South Africa.
Operation Wallacea was an unforgettable experience and one that will remain with us for life. All of us who participated are full of gratitude for those teachers that gave up their own time to allow us to go on this once in a life time trip. We would like to say thank you to Mr. Hughes, Mr. Old and Mrs. Marr for not only helping us to raise the money, but for also helping to make the time we spent in South Africa that much more enjoyable. The group loved the weeks spent in the Kruger national park and Sodwana Bay. We could not be more grateful to the teams at Operation Wallacea for allowing us to fully experience what South Africa has to offer and to participate in their conservation efforts. Whether it be on the back of a jeep, in the bush or diving at the bottom of the ocean, their efforts kept us safe while learning new skills that allowed us to appreciate wildlife and environment that could not be found anywhere else.
Rhino Talk and Shark Life
On our fifth night in Balulé, we were scheduled to have a Rhino Talk so we all congregated in the dining area and waited for Laura, one of the guides, to begin her story. As we listened intently, she recounted one of the worst nights of her life; she told us about the night poachers sneaked into a park she was working at and savagely stole the horn of one of the rhinos she had spent years looking after. The harrowing tale continued and she spoke of the effects of this and how it resulted in four other rhinos dying over the next few days. Laura also addressed the issue of the corrupt South African police and how they simply took pictures with the rhino and made burgers from her meat. We learnt that Rhino horn is the second most expensive commodity in the world after diamonds. Due to its value it will always be sought after by the poachers. Once the gripping story was finished we were left to ponder the moralities of poaching and the alternatives in order to preserve the population of rhinos in the future.
One day, after a long day of diving and snorkelling, we all received a lecture called SharkLife. The passionate speaker informed us about how sharks are portrayed in the media and how this couldn’t be further from the truth. He spoke of the tranquillity of sharks when they enter a state called tonic immobility and how we need to rethink the shark because their image of being killers is resulting in the unsustainable hunting of them. We saw how fishermen simply cut the fins of the sharks off and threw them back into the sea to just die at the bottom of the ocean because they can no longer swim. This is a daily occurrence, just to make shark fin soup. We saw many videos demonstrating the playful nature of sharks and he informed us of a course we can take to spread the message and work to end this brutal killing of sharks.