One of the highlights so far of being on Swarthmore’s Globalization, Environment, and Society study abroad program in Cape Town was a week-long field trip to the Kalahari Desert in northwestern South Africa.
The field trip was a part of our core course on the themes of the program. The first half of this six-week course was taught by the Swat professor who organizes the program, Carr Everbach. Carr had traveled to South Africa with us for the first few weeks before having to return to Swat to teach his engineering courses. Having Carr not only in class, but on the field trip with us, gave us a sense of familiarity in a very new environment and helped bridge any gaps between the six other professors from University of Cape Town who came on the field trip with us.
The seven professors and fourteen of us students (eleven Americans, three South Africans) set off in three mini buses for our weeklong journey up and down the western part of South Africa.
One of my favorite experiences was a night along the Orange River, where we got to go swimming as the sun was setting over the water. The sunset provided explanation for the river’s namesake; the entire sky transformed into different shades of orange as the evening progressed. After splashing around in the cool water of the river, I enjoyed a delicious local fish while engaging in conversations with the professors and fellow students on a deck overlooking the river and the concluding sunset.
Standing on the patio where we had dinner along the Orange River.
I always say that dinners are one of my favorite parts of Swarthmore because I get to take a break from work and talk to my friends, and dinners proved to be one of the highlights of this trip, as well. Dinner would usually be a several hour event, and there is nothing quite like waiting on a three course meal paid for by the program while talking with my classmates and professors.
Dinners also sometimes took the form of “braais,” which are essentially barbecues with a large emphasis on grilling meat. In the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, we had a sunset braai at our huts overlooking the plains of the park.
Braaiing at Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
This was probably my favorite night of the trip. While waiting for our meat to cook, we all watched the sun set over the distant rolling hills. There was wildlife all around us, and someone even managed to spot three lion cubs watching us with curiosity as we unloaded our groceries out of the vans. It’s not everyday that I spend the night where the only thing separating me from wild lions are either a flimsy fence or a three-foot-tall ledge. It’s also not everyday that there are miles of rolling desert separating me from the rest of society. In a society where technology diminishes the effects of physical distance and being halfway across the world from family and friends, the fact that I had no mobile phone service added to the distance I felt from the rest of the world. I think we all appreciated this distance and it gave us a new, refreshing perspective as we explored this new part of South Africa, but also continued exploring the new culture that we were now a part of.
This night was also memorable, because after the sun had set and before the moon had risen, we sat around looking up at the clear night sky, seeing the most stars that many of had ever seen. One of the UCT geology professors had a schedule of when the International Space Station was crossing over the area, and we were all watching in unison as the speck of light sputter by when another burst of light, this time a shooting star, shot across the sky. The night culminated with Carr playing the guitar as we all sang along. As cheesy as it may seem, I couldn’t help but think that this was such an “Only at Swarthmore”-type experience, and was deeply grateful in this moment for this once in a lifetime opportunity.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park as a whole was another major highlight of the trip. Having interned at the Philadelphia Zoo one summer, I have learned a lot about different types of animals, and spent the entire game drive with my eyes peeled on the unfolding plains, searching for the opportunity to see some of my favorite animals in the wild.
My favorite animal encounter was seeing the lions on our 5:30 AM game drive. We also saw giraffe, springbok, ostriches, and wildebeest.
Since Kgalagadi is a transfrontier park (meaning a Visa isn’t need to cross the border within the park), we got to temporarily step into Botswana. The park also borders Namibia, so we got to spend about three minutes across the border, taking pictures in front of the Namibian flag.
Crossing the border into Namibia
Other highlights of the trip included a stop at the Khi Solar One Tower, a huge solar thermal power plant, and an early morning hike in the Tankwa Karoo region.
Khi Solar One mirror field, which reflected sun rays to the tower. The tower was so bright it could be seen from miles away.
The Tankwa Karoo lodge we stayed in was a 2-hour drive on a dirt highway in either direction from the nearest town.
My verdict from the week is that field trips are still one of the best parts of school.