At halfway through my stint in South Africa, it seems that time is simultaneously standing still and moving forward at an alarming rate. It feels like a lifetime ago that I wrote my last blog post, but perhaps it was yesterday. Time is relative.
It’s been a week of turnover and change. All the volunteers I started with bar one, who is currently in Botswana, have left and three new ones (two fresh faced newbies and a returner) have moved into the staff house. Rusty, the future Cycle Mashatu Manager, has also returned and I’ve been picking his brains about the most convenient formatting for the booking chart. Thus, it has been a rather hectic feeling week and it is nice finally sit down and relax, reply to correspondence, and maybe later, I will sneak in a nap.
On Monday I was contacted as a potential candidate for a fascinating sounding consultancy job (so sue me, researching tech is cool). Hence, Wednesday saw me escaping the pack (who are adorable and make excellent hot water bottles), to sit a preliminary skype interview. Apparently, the South African horse safari offices provide a unique background. However, I suspect the Shuttles Office was still a better choice than the alternative backdrop of dusty saddles and a free roaming parrot in search of toes to peck. Fortunately, hats hanging on walls or no, I met requirements and am through to the next stage (queue TV presenter voiceover).
I also sat an online test, this time in the presence of demon parrot. Whiskey, it turns out, is an excellent motivator as there is nothing like a parrot creeping closer and closer to encourage one to work at double time. Fortunately, I have yet to be attacked by him; more because I am very good at running away than any particular fondness for me on his part. For those foolish enough to try and befriend him, he is viscous, as the scratches Rusty is currently supporting go to show.
In other news, office life continues as per normal with the occasional benefit of joining a ride. My big projects at the moment are collating the data on agent bookings and producing revenue charts for Saddlebag Shuttles. This is in addition to being tech support, a role that ranges from providing the all-important Wi-Fi by plugging the router in, to prettying up Excel spreadsheets.
I also saw my first scorpion. Far more adorable than spiders, but I think I prefer to admire them from a distance, or may be through a computer screen. Two of them made an appearance at last night’s staff house braai (a better version of barbeque). Leoni, a freelance guide that occasionally works for Horizon, gave us a great talk about how tail thickness and pincer size are good indicators of sting nastiness. It is safe to say that the tapping out of my shoes each morning has increased in fervour.
One of the new volunteers is also an Eleanor of uncertain spelling which has prompted much confusion, especially when we talk about ourselves in third person. No doubt this will continue to annoy us, and everyone in the surrounding vicinity, so perhaps a battle of the nicknames shall have to be carried out (I’m vetoing “Marcus’s Sister” in advance). Until such time as appropriate names are decided on however, I will be known as Elanor 1 and look forward to Tuesday evening when Elanor 1 and Eleanor 2 (of uncertain spelling) will be hosting together. Oh, what fun we shall have *grins evilly*.
After a blissfully peaceful start to the week, I made the well-known, but eternally foolish, mistake of thinking to myself “I’m finally getting the hang of this”. Hence, it was only natural that my carefully colour-coded, neatly filed plans were thrown for a loop on Wednesday morning.
“So Elanor, are you happy to run Saddlebag Shuttles for the next few days?” (By which I mean you are are running Saddlebag Shuttles for the next few days).
WHAT!!!! Nope. Definitely not. Expect wildfires and stranded guests. Wait, how does managing a transfer company result in wildfires? I don’t know but it does.
Ah, the endless entertainment the voices in my head can provide.
Oh, wait. Wasn’t I supposed to be responding?
After the buffering symbol disappeared from over my head, I manage to stutter out something along the lines of okay but don’t blame me if I burn it to the ground.
This may seem like something of an overreaction, so let me clarify. Saddlebag Shuttles is an affiliate company to Horizon Horseback that books and runs transfers, normally for guests, at different lodges in the surrounding area and to and from O.R. Tambo Airport. It is run and managed by Rachel, whom I frankly aspire to be as awesome as. From her gloriously formatted spreadsheets to her embroidered blouses and the way that no matter how busy she is, she just floats around as cool as a cucumber, I have a huge amount of respect for her. Hence, attempting to even partially fill some of her role for a few days was an intimidating prospect.
One high intensity training session and a lot more jokes about fires (seriously you trust me with this???!!!) later and I was ready to go.
Needless to say, no fires were started in the course of my managerial stint. However, I am not sure my sanity has been left intact. From tasks I had no idea how to complete (I’m looking at you, car maintenance enquiries) to still being given Cycle Mashatu (back to being two words) and Horizon Horseback tasks to complete, saying the past few days have been a tad overwhelming would be an understatement. Heaped on top of this is the pressure of trying to find a job half a world away (if anyone needs a physics graduate, message me).
I am endeavouring to call it a learning experience and will no doubt regard it calmly once I’ve had a few days to recover from the icy cold shock of the deep end, but for now forgive my whining.
Besides, it hasn’t been all bad, I’ve finished the first stage of my pet project—developing a legible booking chart for Cycle Mashatu (#Excel #myonetruelove). There’s nothing like conditional formatting an entire spreadsheet to cheer oneself up in the morning. Now I just need to fill in a test month and circulate it amongst those who will be using the chart to garner a usability report.
I’ve also got to go out on a few more rides (we won’t talk about the disaster of me on Kalamazoo during polocrosse) which has been a lot of fun and good break from the office stress. I particularly enjoyed last night’s sundowners where all the rides, including the campers, met up (admittedly by accident, but shhh). It was a really lively crowd with lots of cross-group conversations and interactions happening and an activity I will definitely be suggesting happens more often in the future.
It’s been a busy week and I have lots to ramble about. Last Sunday was my first time hosting guests for the evening meal. Personally, I would consider it a roaring success—I only smashed one bowl and that was in the kitchen, not in front of guests, so it barely counts. Clearly I need to have my fingers upgraded to asbestos. Fortunately, most of the guests were part of one large group so they mostly entertained themselves and any uncertainty I had about what to do, quickly faded.
After a peaceful day of office work on Monday—the itinerary brochures are now in their final stages of proofreading and I have another spreadsheet to add to the collection—I volunteered to host guests again on Tuesday. I confess to having an ulterior rather than altruistic motive when I did this. A motive suspiciously shaped like Dr Phil Calcot’s awesome Starlight Safari. Hence, Tuesday morning saw me checking in with Rachel: “Hosting=Stars?”. With an affirmative and something about rhinos (but whatever because STARS) I happily left Rachel’s office and spent the day researching bike shows.
About four thirty I was pulled from my personal contemplation of whether the Ard Rock Enduro Festival would be a suitable place to showcase CycleMashatu (Yes, it is one word—I had to correct five brochures). “Elanor, are you ready to go?” What? Go where? Ooooh yeah. That thing about being the guide and official sundowner server while the guests were seeing rhinos. Welp, suppose I better do that.
SO TOTALLY WORTH IT! Thank you so much Rachel for arranging for me to tag along as the Horizon Horseback guide. We went to Ant’s Nest, a nearby lodge, and saw all the rhinos being fed. Between pouring G&Ts and opening Savannahs, I gawked over the sheer size of the rhinos, something that photos never really show, and admired a really pretty eland that was loitering around. It was fascinating to learn about the precautions taking against poaching, from a 24-hour guard to inserting a dye and toxin into the rhinos’ horns.
With a careful application of logic, I planned our departure time from Ant’s Nest. It was perfectly balanced for maximum rhino viewing and a prompt arrival at the dinner table to minimise the inevitable lateness to the Starlight Safari. I had time for people to change and even a generous additional ten minutes for the expected unexpected delay. This planning naturally meant that all my plans went awry. The steep nature of the road into Ant’s Nest meant we had to exit by a different road, or the minibus would do a First UniBus and breakdown halfway up the hill. This meant exiting by a different gate. A gate that required buzzing through before it could be opened. Thus, a lack of people picking up phones and poor signal left us sitting at the gate for over twenty minutes and I watched my carefully allotted minutes inexorably tick away.
Arriving back at Horizon at the same time that dinner was supposed to start, we scarfed down the quickest three course dinner on record, forwent amarula, and speed walked up to the western games field (“big rock” is definitely a valid navigation aid). Fortunately, we arrived on (Horizon) time. As Phil put it, “it’s Horizon, I expect you to be late”.
Once everyone was safely tucked up in blankets and sitting comfortably, Phil proceeded to walk us through our solar system, the Milky Way Galaxy and beyond, describing the vast distances that stretch out beyond our little blue dot. The southern skies, free of light pollution, never fail to steal my breath each time I look up. Painted with millions of stars, there is something truly indescribable about the sight.
From Jupiter and Saturn, we journeyed onwards to Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighbour star (shut up Proxima Centauri, red dwarfs don’t count). We discovered Antares in the Scorpio constellation (please go supernova in my lifetime) and marvelled at the vast arch of the Milky Way. Phil’s ability to hold numbers in his head was extraordinary as he reeled off greater and greater distances until we had admired the dust lanes and looked towards the centre of the galaxy. Breaking free of the galaxy’s confines, we spied Omega Centauri, a globular cluster, and the Magellanic Clouds, distant dwarf galaxies.
I have no doubt that I will be boring people by pointing out constellations for a long time to come. On a personal note, Phil told us of his faith, something I found extremely special as so often faith and science are mistaken as mutually exclusive entities, and it is always refreshing to meet another Christian scientist, especially physicists and especially when the opportunity to fangirl over the cosmological constant arises.
Wednesday dawned bright and way too early as my body decided five o’clock is a reasonable time to wake up. However, it did mean that by the time I emerged from the staff room, I had a peaceful half hour to watch the sun rise and the mist slowly clear from the lake. Escaping the office, I met the morning ride at Morgan’s Rock for a bush breakfast. This late brunch and lunch substitute (my main reason for going) is a campfire cooked full English and is always a fun surprise for guests and a tasty bit of variety for everyone else. An afternoon ride left me fully booked for the day and ready for a solid night’s sleep.
This week has held a large amount of veterinary interest. One of the horses, Major, has an ulcer in his eye and has been receiving drops of various medicines every half hour for twelve hours every day. Fortunately, this is paying off as the blood vessels are slowly but steadily growing towards the ulcer, whereupon the blood supply will help it heal. Thursday had the added interest of watching a couple of the jack russells be castrated. This was a fascinating if a slightly surreal experience as I doubt dogs are castrated on mounting blocks in dusty yards anywhere else in the world.
Our big group of guests wrapped up their visit with a game of polocrosse on Friday. This is a game I’m fairly certain was invented when someone wanted to play polo but only had lacrosse sticks. As always, it bought out everyone’s competitive spirit with lots of cheering and jeering. I particularly enjoyed watching some of the excellent horsemanship on display as the ball was cantered from one end of the pitch to the other.
Other than an ongoing issue with the Wi-Fi and checking in a new group of guests, yesterday passed quietly and I finally finished typing up the Botswana guest questionnaires (does silly dance of celebration).
Today I went to church. This was a lovely close to the week with a ministry that has left me with a lot to think about. It was also the first church where I’ve spent half the service with a dog on my lap, something I am most definitely not complaining about and hope will be a repeat experience.
Having been in South Africa for just over a week now, I can certainly say that is has been an eventful introduction to volunteer life at Horizon Horseback. It certainly wasn’t a smooth start, my appearance at the lodge was a complete surprise to all the other volunteers. In fact, I think the only people who knew I was arriving was Laura, my boss in the office, and Shane, her husband, who manages everything horse related.
Last Saturday saw me starting work properly. Horizon Horseback recently acquired Cycle Mashatu, an operator that offers cycling safaris in Botswana. And by cycling safaris, I mean cycling around a big five game reserve on your bike looking at elephants and other game, not cycling between game reserves but staying in the safety of a game vehicle within the reserve. Fun. Terrifying but fun. A bit like a rollercoaster. I think I prefer the idea of horses, which go a lot faster when it comes to running away. However, that may just be my Slytherin sense of self-preservation kicking in. Currently most cycle rides are populated with South Africans and it’s Laura’s goal is to branch out onto the international market so my first task was finding cycling and adventure holiday companies that may be interested in selling our tours.
This was surprisingly challenging as most companies turned out to be operators who design and sell their own tours. However, as I got into the swing of things and thought of more and more synonyms for cycling, adventure and holiday it gradually became easier and I was able to hand over a list of companies ready to be contacted. All the looking at holidays and travel destinations has fuelled my wanderlust tenfold though and I doubt I will ever finish my bucket list now… That tall ship holiday across the Atlantic followed by travelling the entirety of South America sounds like and excellent idea. Perhaps I should start my own travel company like so many of the operators I have been reading about?
A power outage and consequent loss of Wi-Fi saw me writing up guest questionnaires into an Excel spreadsheet, something I continue to do between other tasks. I felt quite smug with my formatting of a pivot table to give guides’ average scores and drop down lists until I saw the spreadsheet Laura has put together for Shwe To Go, a group of local women who make placemats and bowl covers out of fabric covered bottle tops. A spreadsheet that I will eventually be teaching the use of. Thank God for physics degrees and years of analysing lab results in Excel.
Sunday had a minor incident in the form of someone crashing a small four-person helicopter into the lake in front of the lodge. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured and the hippo, while rather upset about the large metal beast in his lake, stayed out of the way while it was removed. It also had the silver lining that I got to replace one of the back-up guides and go out on a ride because everyone was so wiped out from the adrenaline rush. I rode the delightful Cobalt who is an absolute gem.
After that excitement, Monday was nice and peaceful with a surprise trip into Vaalwater where I was supposed to be teaching Emmie how to use the Shwe To Go spreadsheet but instead sat working on Laura’s iPad in the bank due to a misbehaving laptop (the best laid plans and all that). This wasn’t so bad as it gave me the chance to write the rest of my job description and a to do list of all the things I could potentially do to help Laura, from polishing Cycle Mashatu’s online presence, to making a Google form version of the guest questionnaire (I’ll admit this one is mostly just self-serving in the long run; I’m still only halfway through the Botswanan questionnaires, let alone the South African ones).
Tuesday morning saw a distinct lack of horses turn up for breakfast, for once with a valid excuse: the birth of a new (adorable) foal, by a new to the herd mare, Two Delta, (talk about two for the price of one). He’s yet to be named but current volunteer favourites are Potter, Bovril and B-52. I look forward to watching him grow (he’ll be huge if the length of his legs is anything to go by) and may try to take him home in my suitcase if he continues to snuffle my hair so adorably.
The rest of the week has been rather quiet. My main task at the moment is picture hunting and compiling brochures that describe the different accommodations and itineraries that Cycle Mashatu can offer. This is rather enjoyable to my exacting mind and I have been putting Microsoft Publisher through its paces to produce brochures that make even Shalimpo, one of our more “rustic” lodges, look like five-star luxury. Left a bit, right a bit. Let’s proofread for the n-teenth time. Did anyone say INTJ personality type? Otherwise, I’m working through my to do list and fielding tasks as fast as Laura thinks of them.
Rhino’s cooking continues to be as amazing as I remember (including his cookies) and I am volunteering with tacking up horses in the yard in the mornings in the vague hope that it counteracts some of the calories. Perhaps I shall have to take up cycling? I certainly want a bit of off-road cycling practise in case I end up going to look around Cycle Mashatu—those lions are going to be left in the dust.
Just under a year ago, I returned from St Petersburg. A year studying in Singapore and months of travelling had undoubtedly changed me. For starters, I had a tan, which was something of a first, but more importantly I had matured. Aged might be a be a better description—I’m fairly certain solo travelling halfway across the globe is to blame for some of my fine lines—but matured sounds far more graceful and elegant and so shall be my word of choice. Having never been a wild child of flighting fancy, I do not know how obvious my transformation was to those around me. However, I could feel the change in my bones, the way I had finally settled into my skin and was no longer unsure of myself.
During the past I year, I have faced challenges that have made me doubt that self-assurance but ultimately, I have come out stronger—and with a degree in physics—from them. Until a month ago I had planned to join the Royal Navy as a Hydrography and Meteorological Officer. This had been my intention for a little over two years but a series of events within the Bristol University Royal Naval Unit led me to the conclusion that to do so would be a mistake. Unsurprisingly, changing your career plan of two years just before graduating can leave one in something of a muddle.
I found myself looking at long lists of Careers That Would Suit X Personality Type and despairing over ever finding something that appealed, only the list of definitely not career choices seemed to get any longer. I knew that meteorology and project management interested me, as did oceanography but finding a job that didn’t require a PhD seemed impossible. I still don’t know where I will end up, so will just have to see how my applications go and keep searching until I find something.
There is one tiny spanner in the works of this grand plan.
You see, when I was still convinced I would be joining the Navy, I signed up to two months volunteering at a horse ranch in South Africa. I worked on the theory that if I passed the interview board I would have months to kill before finding out if my application was successful and if I failed… well two months away from everything would probably be welcome.
I am aware that there is a reasonable argument for cancelling my two months away. After all, how can one job hunt when they’re in the wrong hemisphere? However, given that I am writing this in Heathrow Terminal Three, it is pretty apparent that I am not about to back out. My reasons for this are threefold:
- It is absolutely not in my nature to renege on a commitment or promise.
- I have wanted to volunteer at Horizon Horseback ever since I first visited six years ago.
- I had already bought the flights.
Will it make job hunting harder? Yes. And will I potentially lose out on a job because I will not be able to conduct a face to face interview? Yes. (Although, given I live in Guernsey, it is unlikely I could have attended many face to face interviews in the UK anyway.) However, this will be an amazing experience in which I will no doubt mature further and gain valuable experience and memories (and won’t that sound good on my CV).
Therefore, dear reader, let me tell you a little about Horizon Horseback and how I came to know about it.
Someone once told me that wherever you are, you’ll always find an islander. Hence, in true Guernsey fashion, my mother and I first heard about Horizon from the brother of one of the owners, who is originally from Guernsey. It is a horse ranch that offers horseback safaris out into the South African bush and it was to be a once in a lifetime trip. So naturally, we were back a year later with my brother in tow. We’re not the only ones who keep going back either, Horizon is a place that continuously pulls guests back, many year after year. The whole ranch is seemingly shrouded in a sense of peace and tranquillity that is more powerful than any drug. The community of guides and volunteers are like an ever-changing family that one is welcomed into for the duration of one’s stay.
From watching the herd of 80 odd horses run across the dam in time for the afternoon ride, to riding across a plain filled with zebra, a sense of something magical infuses every moment. The occasional surprise second breakfast or sipping a G&T whilst watching the sun set can never be forgotten and certainly never captured in photos or words. How could I resist going back? This time will be different of course. I will be working. However, I do not believe that this will detract from my experiences of Horizon in any way. It will be different, but change is not a bad thing and this one will merely reflect the changes in me. I’ve grown up. I enjoy the newfound independence of adulthood and the responsibility it brings. I look forward to the responsibility of working in the office and hosting guests, of being a part of the team that makes Horizon so special for so many people.
So let the adventure begin…