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It’s 4.15am and the low buzz of an alarm clock jilts you out of your restful nights’ sleep. Navigating your way out of the cocoon of a mosquito net surrounding your bed, it’s time to start a new day at Karongwe Private Game Reserve. The stove is on, and people are bustling around, preparing for the day ahead, silently going through their personal check-list: camera, binoculars, hat, blanket, sun cream, coffee.

5am and the 4X4 cruiser is checked and loaded with GVI interns and volunteers, as the engine roars into life and makes it’s way down the dusty, bumpy dirt tracks, anticipation builds within the team, will this be the game drive that we get to see the ‘Big 5’! As the spotlight sways from left to right hoping to catch the eyes of a nocturnal predator, The shout of “stop, eyes” has everyone focused on where the spotlight is shining. We reverse back gradually to where the spot was called from, is the animal still there? Can anyone make out the silhouette? Oh, hang on, there’s lots of eyes staring back at us, it’s a small herd of impala, although they are wonderful animals, they are not who we are looking for this morning, so we wish them good day and drive on our way, all eyes are back to looking into the shadows of the bush.

South African sunrise along the dirt tracks at GVI Limpopo

The sunrises in South Africa are simply stunning. As the sun peaks above the Drakensberg Mountains, it illuminates the sky in a beautiful orange to red hazy band which then merges with the pale blue morning sky. With the air temperature gradually rising, it will soon be another hot day here at Karongwe. As the cruiser carries on it’s bumpy journey, it is not long until the first sighting of one of our focus species is spotted. “Stop, rhino on the left” is called out, and with that we come to a halt, and there silently grazing in the morning sunshine is a majestic White Rhino and her calf. Binoculars and cameras out, all eyes are on the rhino’s ears. As you can imagine, trying to identify one rhino from another is quite difficult (not wishing to be rude about these magnificent beasts, but they do all look the same from a distance) to help with identification each rhino on the reserve has specific notches placed into their ears. Some have triangles, some have squares, some have holes and others have a combination of all three. With specific data noted down about who this rhino is and her location, with the obligatory photos and cooing over the baby rhino, we move on to search for other residents of the reserve.

As the drive continues, tracks of a large cat are spotted on the dusty road. Could it be lion, leopard, or cheetah? With expert guidance from our course mentor we follow the tracks until they disappear into the bush, further investigation shows the faint claw marks above the toe pads, this is a sign of a cheetah. The telemetry equipment is brought out to detect which direction our collared cheetah has gone. As the clicks get stronger, we can narrow the location further and further until a sighting is made. A stunning female cheetah and her cub lying in the shade of the trees, relaxing, but always alert.  As the cheetah is one of our focus species on the reserve, we once again collect valuable data on them and then leave them in peace. Making our way back to base we see the familiar faces of zebra, kudu, giraffe and impala. Although these animals do not pull the crowds and admiring looks like that of the Big 5, they are magnificent in their own right and absolutely essential to the ecosystem and the reserve.

9.30am and we are back on base and our morning game drive is complete. Time to return all of the equipment and input the data on to the computer system from our sightings. The afternoon game drive is not until 3.30pm so the interns and volunteers have free time to work on their studies, attend lectures on conservation subjects or further their knowledge on birds and mammals through the extensive library.

3.30pm soon comes round, and once again the land cruiser is navigating the dusty dirt tracks, riding the bumps and crevices. As we pass close to one of the dams, an African Fish Eagle is spotted perched high in a Leadwood tree. A spectacular looking bird surveying the dam and surrounding area looking for his next meal of either fish, birds or even small mammals. Our journey takes us to the north of the reserve where the vegetation becomes lusher along the Makutsi river with trees such as Leadwoods, Jackalberrys, Weeping Boer-Beans and the mighty Sycamore Figs. Many of these trees reaching hundreds of years old are the heartbeat of the woodland, being home and a food source to many of the birds, insects and mammals. Here we find a herd of browsing elephants. Mighty but graceful, they amble alongside the cruiser and we sit in sheer delight and disbelief as to how close they come to us, the Matriarch leading the way followed by three generations of her family. For the size of these animals, they move so quietly and the only noise they make is the breaking of the branches they are feeding on. We would love to spend more time in their company, but it is time to move on and allow this magnificent herd to continue with their journey.

As we slowly make our way back to base, we stop to watch a solitary rhino grazing in the sunset of Karongwe. A stunning shade of pink illuminates the sky, the air is warm and still, and the only sound you can hear is the faint song of the Black Headed Oriole in the distance. After a delicious home cooked dinner, members of the team sit on the veranda where conversations of our day fill the air. Soon it is time to head off to bed and back into the cocoon of the mosquito net, a restful night’s sleep is beckoning and the thoughts of what tomorrow may bring make for exciting dreams.