SNR News Story

Posted: 9/14/2023

My Time in Makuleke

Lone Elephant
A bull elephant makes his way towards a watering hole where we stopped to rest on our morning walk   Photo by Caden Connelly

by Caden Connelly

I often find it hard to answer the question "how was your trip?" Something so special simply can’t be put into words. See, I grew up on nature documentaries, Animal planet, and National Geographic. On Sundays my parents and I would eat dinner in front of the television watching "Planet Earth." Sitting on the basement floor I fell in love with the outdoors. My dad took me on fishing trips before I could walk, then I became a boy scout, and by 16 I knew that I wanted a career in the outdoors. I had spent my childhood creating aspirations for adventure and that is how I ended up in South Africa.

At the beginning of my freshman year, I knew that I wanted to study abroad in Africa. I chose the Makuleke trip after a discussion with John Carroll and a meeting with a few students who attended the year prior. Nine months later I boarded my flight to Johannesburg, unable to comprehend the 5 weeks that were about to follow. After two travel days I set foot in camp for the first time. Surrounded by nothing but trees, rutting impala busted through the bush as vervet monkeys watched from overhead. The world around me was alive. The people I had travelled with were strangers, meeting in the airport roughly 40 hours before. We ate, talked, and tried to take in all the sounds of the bush. Our guides were kind, and it was apparent how excited they were on our behalf. As days passed there were no more awkward interactions, everyone in camp became fast friends and I was continually amazed at the level of connection. Despite this trip’s focus on wildlife, I often found myself learning more than sampling techniques or tracking, I learned from the actions of my peers, guides, and instructors. They taught lessons in empathy, hard work, and resilience. I was infatuated with the people surrounding me. People with stories and passions, with humor and love to share. I have never laughed as much as I did during my weeks in Makuleke.

John, Rebecca and Carlee at sunrise
John Carroll, Rebecca Wyatt, and Carlee Koehler-Moates watch the sunrise over Lanner Gorge   Photo by Caden Connelly

My time in the bush was emotional as well. For the first time in my life, I was able to disconnect from any and all modern communication. Without the distraction of social media, phone calls, and e-mails, I was fully immersed in the experience. This allowed for an abundance of observations, emotions, and thoughts to arise. I experienced these along with my peers and learned so much about myself. There were challenges that presented themselves, and with thought, communication, and deliberation, the answers appeared. Through all of these experiences an underlying growth of confidence occurred. I saw firsthand how capable I was. With coaching and guidance, I had put myself in uncomfortable situations and grew through these experiences. Throughout it all I never stopped learning. Each day held something new, and I was more than equipped to handle it.

Zebra Mare
As the sun sets a zebra mare trails behind her herd   Photo by Caden Connelly

There was a new adventure to be had every day of the trip. Never once did I find myself bored or wishing I had access to the things that used to fill my time. The hours formerly spent on a cell phone had been replaced with exploration with a camera or reflections in my journal. During this time, I became more and more assured in my passion for the outdoors. Seeing its beauty daily, connecting with people who have dedicated their lives to conservation, and sharing such love for these places, I began to realize how important the work being done is. Though I may have heard this through lessons or news stories, seeing ecosystem operations and human effects on them firsthand enhanced my learning exponentially. I gained more classroom knowledge in my five weeks in Makuleke than an entire semester could offer. With daily hands-on experience our learning was applicable and there was so much room for experimentation. The support of instructors and guides was unmatched and allowed for failure and growth throughout the trip.

Whether it was with the people, flora or fauna of Kruger, I have nothing but fond memories of this trip. I made some of my best friends, established connections around the world, and discovered another genuinely exciting educational experience. I have not stopped thinking about my time in Makuleke since I have returned, and it is safe to say my passion for the outdoors has grown immensely. I believe this is an experience every student should have. To help them gain not only academic knowledge and experience but a deeper understanding of the world around them and career pathways they hope to pursue. I will always be extremely grateful for my time in Makuleke.

Caden Connelly
Caden Connelly in South Africa Photo by Carlee Koehler-Moates