Well, I just got back today from a five-day field camp that landed us up the beautiful western coast of South Africa near Clanwilliam. Clanwilliam is situated in a desert-like region and the area known for its gorgeous flower display throughout the year, especially now during the spring. The weather was fabulous—it felt like summer as the desert region was in the upper nineties while we were there, making it a hot but enjoyable spring break.
As I mentioned before, I was supposed to go with the rest of the study abroad program to Krueger National Park and in talking to them, it sounds as if their trip was definitely a success. However, given the situation that I was in and that I had no other opportunities for spring break as this trip was required, I went in with the best possible attitude and just hoped for the best. I actually got a lot out of the trip and it ended up being a blast, far more fun than I ever would have expected from a biology field trip!
We stayed on a farm about three hours up the Western coast of South Africa from Cape Town. The location was gorgeous as the desert environment certainly gave a different feel than the one found in Cape Town as it was very rocky and mountainous but absolutely gorgeous! We even got to do a bit of exploring during the free time. The desert-like environment was hot and dry which provided perfect swimming and tanning opportunities—perfect for spring break!
Because the entire field trip was biology focused, we had workshops during the day that incorporated what we had learned in class with real-life examples. There were eighty-some students in my class, all of which attended the field trip, and we were split up into six groups that rotated through six stations, two per day. The workshops ranged from herpetology, where we searched for geckos, lizards, and snakes (and we even found a tortoise) to ecophysiology where we assessed the adaptations of water loss for desert-living insects compared to those found in temperate weather climates such as Cape Town. We also looked at birds and mammals, dug up termite mounds as we inspected colonies and social insects, and spent an afternoon learning about biocontrol processes taking place on the farm.
The whole camp was very biology based which I found quite hilarious at times. Coming off of just having a big test all about invertebrates and arguably knowing far too much about invertebrates, some of the comments were quite hilarious. Everything was referred to with their scientific name… so instead of saying “Hey, look at that dragonfly” it was “Hey, look at that odonata.” And it was not uncommon to hear comments such as “wow, look at the pedipalps on this thing”… I thought it was quite funny and one could certainly conclude quickly that we were definitely on a biology field camp. It was really neat however seeing how much passion the students and teachers had for the subject. Here in South Africa, they do majors a bit different as they are much more focused and specialized. For example, at home my major is biology and I am able to take classes in population biology, microbiology, and genetics. However, biology here is not a major in itself but rather there are sections of biology that you choose to major in so the entire education system focuses on a much more narrow range of topics. So my peers in my class are majoring in zoology—this is just one of the countless differences between education in South Africa and education in America.
The best part of the trip was meeting my fellow students and really getting to know them as we became legitimate friends. I fit in really well with a group of about twenty and spent a lot of my time with them however I roamed around and got to at least meet most of the students at the camp. The camp in general was very laid back and relaxed as even the professors were hanging out with us during the afterhours and having fun. I knew it would be unlike a fieldtrip I had ever been on when I got the packing list and listed was “moderate quantities of alcohol.” Heck, we can’t even legally drink in America at my age let alone would an educational institute promote drinking on a fieldtrip. But, as I said the fieldtrip was very relaxed and one that was made fun, not just strictly focused on learning. We worked during the days but had a pretty free schedule at night where we could enjoy hanging out by the fire, talking, listening to music, etc. The professors even joined in the conversations and it was fun getting to know them in a different context rather than them simply being a professor. I never would imagine students at home sitting around and drinking with their professors—but that was the situation here and everyone seemed to enjoy it, both the students and professors. There is also quite a bit of drug use here in South Africa—I do not participate or encourage drug use what-so-ever—but I was shocked when students were smoking marijuana right in front of the staff (even while talking to staff members) and the staff was completely relaxed about it, as if nothing wrong was going on… again, I highly doubt that would happen in America.
So, all-in-all, it was very interesting to see the differences of a South African field camp versus one that would probably take place in America. The weekend was a lot of fun as I got to see a part of South Africa that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen but the best part was just getting to know my fellow students. I really valued the hangout time and talked a lot about America, answering plenty of questions as everyone seemed very interested and curious. I knew that I would regret coming home from an experience like this and not really meeting any locals so I am happy to announce that I have wonderful South African friends as well as new American friends.
One more day of break before heading back to school.
Desert-like area near Clanwilliam