Written by Pimbuppha Pongtornpipat & Manaka Saito
Photos Courtesy of Nicole Sabet
Summer holidays could hardly get better than spending two weeks immersed in the African bush and the Indian Ocean coral reefs. A group of seven students and two teachers from Ruamrudee International School embraced this eye-opening experience in South Africa with Operation Wallacea, an organization which conducts biological and conservation management research programs across the world. This “extension of our classroom” excursion wasn’t an ordinary tour to circuit the country from city to city or to spend days idling about. It was an expedition meant as an opportunity to use what we had learned in the classroom and to deepen our knowledge in an authentic setting and for a genuine cause.
Our first week kicked off at the Balule Nature Reserve. Balule is an extension of the Greater Kruger National Park in the northeast corner of South Africa and is home to typical African wildlife. Imagine Safari World’s safari park except every single animal you see is truly wild and native. Hippos and crocodiles lounged in the Olifants River across from our lodge at the Struwig Eco Reserve. Giraffes grazed the topmost canopies and were the least alarmed by our open-air car rides. Hyenas whooped in the deep of night on our bush camp sleepover, deterred by nothing but an electric fence and one rifle shared among three rangers. Lions prowled the premises where we ran habitat assessments and where more than once we happily abandoned our duties to embark on a chase for an encounter.
Sodwana Bay was the destination for the second week. Located on the east coast of South Africa, its protected coral reefs are rich and diverse. As snorkelers and not scuba divers, we may have forfeited the opportunity to get up close with the smaller reef inhabitants but in exchange we had the time to pursue larger dwellers. There were absolutely magical moments swimming with bottlenose dolphins, reef sharks, sea turtles and brightly-colored schools of fish. Whales had migrated into the bay for the winter and we were lucky to witness a couple spouts of water and a tail from a distance away. Unlike the comforts provided by Balule’s youth hostel, we slept in tents at Sodwana Bay at the mercy of cold nights and a very mischievous dog with a penchant for pinching impala-and-kudu meat jerkies from our bags.
As much as Operation Wallacea wanted us to enjoy ourselves, it was equally important that we expand our intellectual horizons and make our presence here count for a bigger cause. At Balule our schedules were loaded with data collection exercises to evaluate the status of the bush ecosystem. We spent our days hopping on and off four-wheel drives, conducting habitat assessments and bird and game counts. An important aspect of these activities was that Operation Wallacea was going to utilize our data collection for its conservation projects and monitoring. This fact emphasizes that this wasn’t a simple classroom experiment or a course requirement. Operation Wallacea effectively created assignments that were both a student’s learning experience and an introduction to the professional world of research.
With so many high school and university students on board, it was the opportune moment for Operation Wallacea to raise awareness of certain conservation efforts and give daily lectures on various elements of ecology and local zoology at Balule and Sodwana Bay. Three students in our group are currently taking their second year of IB Biology and it did not escape our attention that some classroom topics were repeated on these lectures in South Africa. In a classroom we tend to absorb information and are perhaps unable to fully grasp its place in the world. We had a field trip at Khao Yai National Park to implement practical work outside a campus setting, but it still felt like schoolwork. It lacked authenticity. Being able to link our knowledge at a place and time that mattered helped consolidate our understanding and appreciation of what we learned within the walls of our classroom.
It was also a terrific opportunity to work closely with experts in their field. The presence of such professionalism was just as crucial to the process of learning as physically completing our day-to-day tasks. The lecturers and rangers patiently taught us assessment procedures and liked to entertain us with fun facts of plants and animals we’d walk past. They were open to satisfying our many curiosities and may have inspired some of us to consider similar career paths. The easygoing relationship we cultivated with them added to the enjoyable memories of this trip.
The credible atmosphere of the expedition is the best feature of Operation Wallacea. By taking students one step further outside their classroom environment, the program supplements what could not be justly replicated in school. The experience is a perfect fusion of fun and meaningful work. Most of the time, work hardly felt like work because we found ourselves so enthralled by it. There is no doubt that we all dearly loved our two weeks in South Africa and benefitted greatly from our time there. If given the chance to return, we would gladly pack our bags and plunge into another adventure of a lifetime.