Vail Daily column: Botswana offers experience of a lifetime
Ryan Summerlin February 27, 2013
It was the beginning of my sixth week here – Gaborone, Botswana, situated in the southern region of Africa – and I found myself out in the middle of the African bush, sun hot on my back, sweat glossing my forehead and neck, hacking away at a nasty, invasive little shrub commonly know as Devil’s Thorn (and let me just say, its name couldn’t be more appropriate.) It has these small, fish hook-like thorns that rip and grab at you. It was only midmorning, and already my legs and arms donned something of an etch-a-sketch creation a 4-year-old might come up with. I was hot, tired, thirsty beyond belief, scratched up and bloody, and wouldn’t you know, it was the happiest I had been since I arrived in Botswana.
This past January, I packed my bags, hopped on a plane, and left the snow-capped mountains of Colorado for the scorching, dry climate of Botswana. I am studying abroad here for the next semester through a program called CIEE (Council on International Education Exchange). If I am honest, I knew very little about the country before I came, including where exactly it even was on the map. However, I preferred it that way. I was excited to come to a place completely foreign to me with no expectations whatsoever.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that I am overly impressed with the capital Gaborone (pronounced Ha-bo-ro-nay) itself. It is a sprawling, poorly laid out city in a constant traffic jam, and there is a sterility here I can’t quite put my finger on. For example, most neighborhoods are referred to as “Block No.”, “Phase No.”, or “Extension No.” Myself, I live with a host family in Block 8. Having just gained independence from Britain in 1966, Botswana (particularly Gaborone) is in a surge of development and went from being one of the poorest countries to having one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. As a result, a strange dichotomy hangs in the air between modern and developing world.
All that being said, I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to intern on a wild game reserve while I am here, which has quickly become the highlight of my weeks. My first day on the job I was told to jump into the back of the pickup truck, and the next thing I know, I was inside the hyena enclosure, an impala hind quarter in my hand, crouching only 4 feet away from two drooling spotted hyenas.
“Just gently throw it in front of you!” the conservation manager directed me.
The hyenas cowered forward and cautiously took the meat, then scurried away back into the bush.
The reserve is currently undergoing an extensive land regeneration and reclamation project, which includes the clearing of invasive plant species, the Devil’s Thorn being one. We sometimes spend full days walking through the bush, slashing away with machetes (locally known as pangas). And the best part? Stopping for a moment to catch your breath or drink some water only to look up and see a giraffe or herd of zebra casually strutting by 20 feet from you. I remember one morning reaching the top of a hill after clearing the perimeter of a fence line when I spotted a white and brown head bobbing level with the trees. A giraffe suddenly appeared munching on leaves, its tail swishing lazily back and forth. Slowly it came through the trees, revealing its speckled body and the full extent of its elegant neck. Seconds later, a tiny baby giraffe scuttled out from under the shrubbery close by its mother’s side. It was in that moment that I thought to myself, this, is why I came to Africa.
Since that moment, I have had similar experiences with kudu, warthogs, ostrich, baboons, and rhinos (just to name a few). One afternoon I was helping to mark a mountain bike trail in the park, when I began to hear a loud snorting noise in the bushes. Seconds later, a wildebeest jolts out from behind a tree and stampedes away. I’ll tell you though, even after nearly seven weeks of working here, coming face-to-face with animals is still just as amazing now as it was the first time I saw them.
I have also been able to get involved with a flood defense project on the reserve, a land regeneration project for improved grazing, as well as other odds and ends such as feeding the reptiles and birds in the wildlife sanctuary, playing with and building toys for some of the monkey residents here, rhino monitoring, and assisting local school groups that come to the reserve on field trips. Last week we were also given the opportunity to practice our rifle skills in the bush, the idea being to learn the necessary skills to protect ourselves from wild animals should something go awry.
Not quite halfway done with my study abroad here, I can already say that I have had an experience of a lifetime. My internship has been like being on a constant African safari. Botswana is starkly different from anywhere back home or any place I have traveled before, but I love the wildness and ruggedness of it all. Rhino tracking for school credit-how can I complain?