McKenna Bixby Testimonial – October 2018
Hopping on the plane that would eventually take me to South Africa, I was exhausted, scared sh*tless, and could think of anything and everything that could go wrong. After 36 hours, 4 plane rides, lots of passes through security, and too many airplane meals to count, a rush of relief washed over me as I simultaneously saw my luggage arrive off of the conveyor belt and saw Kathy waiting at the entrance to the George airport with a sign reading “Knysna Elephant Park”. My first two great fears of travelling- losing my luggage and not being able to find the people that were to be picking me up at the airport- had not come true! Huzzah!! My three weeks of volunteering only got better from there.
Meeting my fellow volunteers that had also arrived that day, I knew we were all exhausted and hungry, but the excitement of us each being in our final destinations of travel and having so much to look forward to was keeping us all amped up. By the time we had done our grocery shopping and made the long and beautiful drive through Knysna to the Elephant Park, we were bubbling with excitement. But from the moment I unpacked my bag, I knew I had made a huge mistake. How am I only spending three weeks here?? Sad! As I met more of the volunteers that would be here for up to three months and then meeting the staff members, many of whom have been here for years, I became increasingly envious and basically started planning my next trip to the park on the first day I arrived. That is just what this place, the people, and the animals do to you.
The joy and laughter that I have experienced here is unlike anything I think I could get anywhere else. It is so relieving to know that there are other people in the world that love elephants like I love elephants. Whether it is the staff members, the volunteers, or the guides, I was always in good company. Having just spent two of the previous years in college in America, I decided to take a year off of college to travel and explore because I felt uninspired and unhappy with how my life was functioning. Spending time with AERU learning about all of the incredible research they do to improve the lives of these elephants has inspired me to explore different areas of education and research. Whether it was the daily trips to the field to collect behaviour data or checking to make sure that all of the zebras were accounted for, I was always learning things about the animals that are here at KEP. Everyone here is so passionate and brilliant, and it has truly inspired me in my own educational field. Any question that I could possibly ask was met with a thoughtful explanation that always had the animals best interest at heart.
The guides had an exceptionally profound impact on my experience here at KEP; which was something I had never anticipated when thinking about this trip. The relationship that each of the guides have with the elephants is so genuine and touching. They are a part of Sally’s herd. Hearing Dumisani speak on my first day in the field about Keisha’s empathy and the ways that he truly admires her and her strength was so humbling, and his laugh is infectious. I will always remember how Edison greets people by saying “Good Morning”, no matter what time of day it is, and how he feels like every day is Christmas. Learning that Ndyebo also loves being in the rain, making me feel less like crazy. I feel grateful to have spent so much time with Kevin and Davidson and to have been able to spend hours laughing with them. Their humility and kindness is something I will always cherish.
The elephants were the reason I came to South Africa in the first place, and man oh man. I don’t know how I will be able to leave them. Keisha and Madiwa will always hold a special place in my heart (and on my arm, thanks to Christina’s INCREDIBLE artistry!!). I don’t know how I would pick a favorite moment with the elephants so I’m just going to list a bunch of them. Watching Mashudu and Madiwa spar and their romance blossom. Watching Thandi run after the zebras through the field, ears all the way out, when they had been locked in the night camp by accident. Learning more about what stressed out/anxious behavior can look like for elephants from Clare’s presentation on elephant behavior. Meeting Harry at PGR!!! He is HUGE!! Seeing how dramatic Thandi can be when she wants something. Watching the ellies play in the mud when it rains. When Madiwa started playing with a rock she found at the dam. Watching Shungu fall asleep at the barrier and then pulling his “Shungu face” so that tourists feel bad for him and give him fruit. Making a rollerskate shaped pellet cake for Thandi’s 15th birthday and being able to hand feed it to Nandi! Feeding a flower that we found in the field to Keisha. OH, and being able to see a baby zebra just hours after it is born! I will have to stay in the loop about what some of the name ideas are! And that’s just the beginning.
Outside of the park, I LOVED going bunjee jumping off of the Bloukras Bridge, doing a ziplining/canopy tour, visiting Jukani, Monkeyland, and especially Birds of Eden. If anyone is interested in getting a tattoo, I would highly recommend recruiting Christina to draw something up for you and getting the tattoo done at OtherWorld Tattoo by Gabi. On my last weekend I’ll be visiting Addo National Park, Tsitsikamma National Park, and Part Elizabeth (hopefully) and those are all sure to be great experiences as well.
All in all, my only regret in coming here is that I’m not staying for longer. I’ve made such incredible memories here, I’m not sure how I will be able to leave. Just thinking about it I’m getting a bit teary eyed. Sad! I’ve spent time taking cooking lessons from Hannah and Nicki so I don’t burn more rice and watching as many Disney movies as we possibly could in just three weeks. I’ve realized just how often I say “Sad!” when something happens, I’ve realized that I really do like 90 degree weather (in Farenheit, of course) and that I’m really awful at gauging how far a meter is (darn you, imperial measuring system!!). I’ve been inspired to dive back in to academia with a new perspective on what education and research can look like, and I’ve taken so many pictures I don’t know how I’ll sift through them to share with others.
I am grateful for this place, these people, and this experience as a whole. I am thankful for every person that makes KEP and AERU run as smoothly as it does. It is a very special experience to be able to put everything in my life on hold to follow my dreams of walking with elephants and spending all of my days with them. I’ll cherish every moment and try to remember all of the people that I’ve met along the way. I’m getting emotional writing this and when I’m emotional I just keep talking and talking so I think I just need to cut myself off of writing at this point. I’m sure I’ll be back, so I won’t say goodbye, just see you later. Thanks for everything!!