Roads may be corrugated, or dirt or gravel, and may be very bumpy and either dusty or muddy and slippery depending on weather conditions. Thorny brush can lead to tire punctures and/or scratches while driving past. Other road hazards in South Africa include fast and reckless drivers, livestock and wildlife, rains, poor or no lighting, and banditry. Traffic moves on the left side of the road. Project vehicles are pickup trucks fitted with bench seats. Volunteers will be exposed to the elements during drives. You should therefore bring appropriate clothing including warm, wind-proof clothing for the mornings when being driven to the start of transects (this clothing can be left in the vehicle when you disembark). Volunteers are not permitted to drive. Volunteers should remain quiet and not move around on the back of the vehicle when potentially dangerous animals are seen while driving.
The terrain is isolated, rough, and undulating, and can be quite steep along some transects. Vegetation, including areas of thorny acacia scrub, may be quite dense. Exhaustion and injuries such as scratches, sprains, and broken bones are possible. Well worn in (NOT NEW) hiking boots with ankle support and socks should be worn to avoid blisters and other injuries. Appropriate clothing (e.g. long trousers, a hat, etc.) should be worn during fieldwork. No bright or black or white clothing should be worn during fieldwork. Only dull colored clothing will be allowed (e.g. dark khaki, dark green or earth-toned colors). The walking pace is deliberately slow so that observers can maintain concentration and avoid disturbing animals. Be sure to walk slowly and carefully and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Closed-toes shoes are required in the evenings around camp.
There is a range of large and potentially dangerous animals, including lion, leopard, spotted hyena, elephant, black rhino, white rhino, buffalo, crocodile, a variety of snakes, and various scorpion species in the region. Any wild animal is potentially dangerous if provoked. Never approach, antagonize, provoke, or tease any animal. Well-trained and experienced armed field rangers will be in the field with volunteers to reduce the potential risks associated with encountering wild animals. It is of the utmost importance to obey the orders of the field rangers in the case of an animal encounter. When walking in the bush with armed rangers, volunteers should walk in single file and always behind the ranger. They should not linger behind but always keep within a meter or two of the ranger. Volunteers should be as quiet as possible and be dressed in dark khaki, dark green or earth-toned colored clothing. Volunteers will be trained on how to behave in the field and avoid incidents with wildlife. The best rule is to keep your eyes open, pay attention, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. The guards are instructed to avoid close encounters with wildlife, but they can still happen. Participants must be able to move quickly in the event that the team gets too close to a buffalo, rhino or elephant. Volunteers should not walk toward camp perimeter fences when potentially dangerous mammals are visible from the camp. Note that these fences are electrified due to the presence of wildlife within and outside the camps so team members should take care not to touch them in order to avoid the risk of electric shock.
A range of venomous snakes are present in the area (including green and black mambas, puff adders, vine or twig snakes, Mozambique spitting cobras, and others). Volunteers must not attempt to pick up, catch, approach, and/or provoke any snakes. Ankle-high, closed-toe hiking boots should be worn for protection while walking transects. Closed-toe shoes must be worn around camp at night and team members are encouraged to use a torch/flashlight when walking around at night. Training in snakebite prevention and what to do in the event of an incident will be given prior to fieldwork. Anti-venom is not held at camp, as most hospitals prefer to treat the symptoms rather than take a risk that the snake has not been identified correctly. In the rare event that a team member is bitten, he/she will be immediately taken to one of the hospitals in Richard’s Bay.
Insects and other invertebrates
Biting insects (e.g. ants, spiders, flies, centipedes, and mosquitoes) and stinging insects (e.g. scorpions, bees, and wasps) are present in the field areas. Care should be taken to prevent insect bites/stings, and volunteers with the potential for allergic reactions should bring medication (antihistamines, at least two Epi-Kits, etc.) as appropriate. Ticks, which are very small and can transmit tick bite fever, may also be present. To minimize risk, bring and use insect repellent, check your body daily for ticks, and wear proper neutral-colored field attire, including long pants tucked into socks. Thin, long sleeved shirts are also recommended. Ticks that are latched onto the skin should be removed with tweezers. Tick bite fever is treatable with antibiotics that can be obtained from the local doctor/pharmacy.
Walking in the African savanna, one can expect scratches on the legs and arms from vegetation. The area has a multitude of thorn trees. Staff will aid in the identification of potentially harmful plants. Wearing long trousers and sleeves can help protect against scratches. You need to keep your eyes open to avoid walking into these and causing injury. Antiseptic and plasters and/or bandages will be available. Some plants may also cause allergic reactions. If you have any known allergies, please inform Earthwatch and the research staff, and bring medication (antihistamines, at least two Epi-Kits, etc.) as appropriate. Even those without known plant allergies may have reactions, so you may wish to bring antihistamines. If you have allergies to antihistamines or other medications, again, please make sure you inform Earthwatch and the research staff.
Heat stroke, heat exhaustion, sunburn, and dehydration are possible when working in the sun. Appropriate clothing (including a wide brimmed hat and long sleeves/trousers) and high factor sunscreen are essential. Each volunteer should carry at least two liters of water into the field and be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day. Inform a staff member right away if you are feeling tired or ill. Exposure to rain and wind/cold may cause chills or overexposure, so bring warm layers. Participants will often be exposed to the sun for long periods of time, or to highly variable weather conditions, which may include large temperature differences between night and day and sudden storms or drops in temperature. Although it is usually cool at the start of the transect, it can be up to 35°C/95°F, by the end so you must be prepared for the sun, stay hydrated and be able to continue walking when hot. Wildfires are rare but possible. In the event of a fire, team members will be removed from any areas of danger and must follow staff and field ranger instructions at all times.
Field rangers will carry heavy caliber weapons for your protection. The rangers are well trained in safety and firing of these weapons. Volunteers will NOT handle the weapons at any time. Weapons are kept unloaded unless the teams are walking on the transects.
A few transects may require crossing rivers. Depending on the level of the water, this may be done on foot or by canoe (staff will paddle, and life jackets are required). Because the transects are conducted during the dry season, the water speed is very slow and water levels are usually low. If there is water in the rivers, it is usually in pools, which one can walk around rather than go through. Canoes will be used to take volunteers and field rangers across only if the water level is high and there is no other way around. Walking through water will be avoided, as there is risk of the parasitic infection schistosomiasis from standing freshwater bodies. Dangerous animals are also present near rivers, such as hippos and crocodiles. Again, never approach, antagonize, provoke, or tease any animal; be aware of your surroundings at all times; and carefully follow any instructions given by the field rangers.
Volunteers should heed camp policies at all times. Particularly when outside of the park, on the roads and in towns, there is a risk of hijacking and mugging. Being alert and keeping valuable items, such as cameras, binoculars, and jewelry, out of sight, can reduce this risk. Use sensible precautions, particularly when traveling in urban areas: avoid carrying money conspicuously (e.g. in bulging wallets or bum-bags/fanny packs); avoid walking alone whenever possible and ignore persons who approach to solicit for donations; avoid wearing jewelry, “tourist outfits” such as safari shorts, jackets, cameras and binoculars, and very short skirts or shorts, tank tops, etc. (more conservative clothing is recommended); always take a taxi when going out after dark; and select and use ATMs with caution. It is always wise to leave unnecessary valuables at home.
There is a swimming pool at a local tourist camp near the project’s north camp accommodations. There may be the odd opportunity to visit this pool during recreational time, but this is not guaranteed. Please note that there is no lifeguard on duty, so volunteers swim at their own risk. Always notify a staff member where and when you will be swimming and never swim alone or at night. Do NOT go swimming or wading in any of the natural water bodies in the area due to the risk of drowning, crocodiles, and schistosomiasis.
Political tensions in South Africa can often result in demonstrations, protests, strikes, or rallies usually in urban areas. These events can turn violent. You should avoid all protests, demonstrations, rallies, and areas where there is picketing.
When electricity is unavailable, gas or oil lamps may be available for use at camp. Participants should take extreme care when using such lamps to reduce the risk of fire or burns.
Distance from Medical Care
The nearest hospital is 150 km away from the project site, and it may take up to two hours to arrange transport and reach the hospital. If you have a chronic condition which could require immediate medical care (e.g. heart conditions, kidney problems, severe asthma, etc.), or if you are pregnant, please discuss your participation on this expedition with your physician.
Traveler’s diarrhea affects many international travelers.
Diseases found in South Africa include malaria, dengue fever, typhoid, rabies, West Nile virus, schistosomiasis, cholera, hepatitis, filariasis, chikungunya, tick bite fever, strongyloidiasis, tuberculosis, and the largest epidemic of HIV/AIDS in the world. Please see the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov) or the World Health Organization (who.int/) websites for more information on these conditions and how to avoid them.
You can decrease your risk of many diseases by avoiding mosquito bites, practicing good hygiene, and drinking only bottled or filtered water when appropriate.
If you feel ill once you return from your trip, make sure you inform your doctor that you have recently returned from a tropical region.
Malaria: Chloroquine-resistant malaria is present in this region, although there have been no malaria cases at the project site in years. Malaria is also present elsewhere in South Africa. Speak with your doctor about appropriate prophylaxis. Be aware that some medications may increase your sensitivity to sun and heat.
Rabies: Vaccinations are not compulsory for this expedition, as volunteers are not going to be handling any rabies-carrying wildlife as part of their assignments. However, volunteers may wish to consult with their healthcare providers about the rabies vaccine, given the regional prevalence of loose and stray dogs. Team members should avoid stray dogs at all times. The rabies pre-exposure vaccination consists of three doses over a 28-day period. Please be sure to consult your physician or travel health clinic well in advance to ensure you have time for the full vaccination series. If you have previously been vaccinated, you must have a medical professional check your antibody levels; a booster shot may be required. Rabies is a fatal disease. Treatment after rabies exposure requires immediate care (within 24 hours), and this type of rapid response may not be available to volunteers on this project due to the remote locations. Pre-exposure vaccination does not eliminate the need for post-exposure medical attention and treatment, but it does provide additional protection against the disease in the event of a delay in treatment. In addition, any bites or scratches should be immediately and thoroughly washed with soap and clean water and a topical povidone-iodine solution or ethanol.