In mid-2015, 23-year-old British student Matt embarked on a three-month volunteer conservation project in Tanzania with the Kilombero Valley Ornithological Centre.
The aim of the research was to survey and evaluate the ecological health and social perceptions of the Ikungua – Kichangani Wildlife Corridor, a migratory route for large mammals. The research carried out would be part of Matt’s master’s thesis in Climate Change at Kings College, London.
Here, Matt reflects on his expedition, which we were able to help support by donating essential equipment and outdoor clothing through our Summit Club Adventure Sponsorship program.
“I had been to Africa before on holiday but never anywhere so remote or for so long on my own. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and challenge myself to do new things. What better way to challenge yourself then spending three months in the middle of Africa?
When I was looking for research opportunities I had to consider the costs associated with such a long expedition as I still had to fund my master’s degree. When I came across the Kilombero Valley Ornithological Centre I thought it was a good opportunity for me to contribute to conservation efforts, learn valuable research skills, gain fieldwork experience and all for a reasonably outlay.
I booked my flights six months in advance so I was able to get a good deal on prices. That’s when I decided to apply for sponsorship with Kathmandu. I knew I would need specialist equipment as I was spending so long in the field. Even to this day I am so glad I requested walking boots and walking shoes. After hiking 8 hours, often through rivers, the amount of sand and mud that ended up in my socks was insane! Being able to get back to camp, have a shower and put on clean shoes was amazing.
As the expedition drew nearer I tried not to think about it too much as I didn’t want to get nervous or worried. I honestly don’t know what I was expecting it to be like but it was definitely a big challenge. I expected to have basic facilities such as cold running water and electricity in camp. In reality we had to collect water from a well and walk 15 minutes to the nearest plug socket. Although this was inconvenient when trying to write up my research when my laptop battery was low, it really did make me appreciate the life I have in the UK.
But as I was reminded countless times “TIA – this is Africa”. After surviving for three months on a basic diet of rice and beans I was even more appreciative of the food! I managed to lose over a stone in three months, and I wasn’t even overweight to start with.
I knew the culture would be different and we would be in a remote village but I was still surprised by how friendly people were. The staff at the centre said it was because they don’t often see white people. The children would line the roads and shout 'Mambo Mzungu', which means 'hello white person'. I learnt a few basic phrases, top of the list is probably “Cheeze Cmon Deeze” which meant crazy as a banana!
Daily routine involved waking up around 6am to leave camp by about 630-7. Most days we had about an hour or 2 hike to the first site where we started collecting data. Some day’s progress was faster than others depending on if we could follow paths or had to bush-wack. I remember one day it took us about 8 hours to do 3km as the forest was so thick.
One of the funniest, albeit painful memories has to be when we walked through an ants nest in the trees. The ants in Africa are about 4x the size of ants in the UK and when they bite it feels like a needle! Luckily for me I was at the back of the group so I didn’t get bitten too much but the poor guide was covered head to foot. We ran screaming through the forest trying to find a clearing to shake all the ants off. Amongst all the dancing around swiping at the ants I looked over to see our guide trying to get out of his overalls hopping around on one leg shouting in Swahili was hilarious.
The first “wow” moment I had was when we walked out of the forest into a clearing and there were ancient old world trees with hundreds of vines like out of Tarzan, and just like in Tarzan there were hundreds of Vervet Monkeys swinging around above our heads. That was a really special moment, it just didn’t seem real. Spending the last 3 or 4 days in Zanzibar was a brilliant way to end the trip. My hostel was a relative luxury after living in the jungle for 3 months (I had a mattress, electricity and a fan).”