I spent most of my time at Mabula shadowing the game rangers. I sat in with them everyday as they took guests out on game drives, sometimes 5 a day - 6:30, 10, 1:30, 3:30 and 7:30. Each drive was a new experience. I got to see the Big 5 on many occasions, as well as see new things like water monitors and even a glimpse of an aardwolf, and as always, new birds. One of the best things was getting to meet new rangers everyday and sit with them for 3 hours on game drives, talking to them and learning from them. They ranged from trainees with just 8 weeks of experience (admittedly I fell in love with one or two :P) to veteran rangers with over 10 years at Mabula. The ranger I spent most of my time shadowing was DJ, also the curator of the lodge's reptile centre. I got to assist him with maintenance of the reptile centre as well as handling some of the animals and helping him with demonstrations. I learnt a lot from his game drives too. Every afternoon we'd go out with new guests trying to show them these elephants that would just never show up and instead just leave clues everywhere. From all the drives, I learnt a lot about tracking animals, especially the elephants.
The biggest bonus of my time at Mabula was in getting to work with the reserve management team. While I was there I spent time with Ann Turner and Nick Theron who run Mabula's Ground Hornbill Research and Conservation Project. They told me all about the project's history etc. and about the resident birds (sadly I never got to meet them). At the time, Ann was hosting Dan York, a professor from Hillsdale College, Michigan, and two of his students Emily and Jordan. They were doing genetic research on the hornbills at Mabula and some other populations around Limpopo that Nick had been working on. They were also looking at Mabula's 10 elephants and 28 rhino to assess the degree of inbreeding amongst them and to map out a family tree of the rhino. Being able to accompany them on that research was the best experience of my life. In winter, the reserve supplement the elephant, rhino and buffalo with extra food like pellets or lucerne, we took advantage of this and used the supplementing as a way of getting the elephant/rhino all in one place (though with the rhino it was more challenging since they're everywhere).
For the elephants, we first had to set out to find them with the reserve ecologist, Jock. Jock's practically raised this herd, they know his bakkie and they respect him so much it's scary. Once we found them and they caught a glimpse of the white bakkie, they came charging at us, knowing they'd be supplemented. To have enough time to lay out the pellets, we sped off into the bush to find a clearing, got off and spread out sacks of these pellets (also at high speed) and then got back onto the bakkie. In no time the herd of 10 came charging out of the bush, ready to be fed - such an exhilerating experience. After that point we just had to wait and watch them. Basically, since we were collecting dung samples, we had to keep an eye on which elephant was shitting when and where so that once they cleared off, we could go and pick up the dung and know which elephant it came from. Sometimes the elephants would come so close to the bakkie that I could've reached out and touch it. I have a video of the matriarch sticking her trunk out literally right in front of my face but it's too long to upload. There were also some great moments when the elephants came too close and Jock, on foot, stood right in front of them, shouting at them to back off. Jock is such a brilliant character. His interactions with the animals aside, he's got the mouth of a sailor and drives around the reserve with a beer in hand. I'd kill to have his life.
The rhino dung samples had already been collected before I got there, but they did the same with those too. For the rhino we also wanted to get tissue samples through biopsy darting with a couple of reserve vets. This was another awesome experience. We had a chart of all the rhinos we wanted samples from, including little photos and diagrams of ways to identify them and tell them apart from each other. Once we found our rhino, we darted it, waited for the dart to fall out, waited for the rhino to be far enough and then collected the dart and put the sample (if we were lucky enough to get one) in alcohol. My job was basically to spot the darts when they fell out - not easy when you've got to watch the rhino running off and see where the dart falls.
(All these photos are Dan York's.)