This past weekend we took Friday off work and made our way to Malelane, South Africa for an in-session workshop with UBC students from Swaziland and Phalaborwa. I went into the weekend with extremely low expectations. We were explicitly told there wouldn’t be time for fun so I was preparing myself for mind-numbing hours of reflecting and discussing theory with a hot shower as the only possible salvation. Turns out the hot shower (though amazing), was far from the best part of my weekend.
We got to the Rio Vista Lodge on Friday afternoon, after a strange trip over the border and a flat tire, and went out to the Deck Restaurant to meet the other students from SA and our supervisor, Tamara. The restaurant looks right into Kruger National Park with a landscape of beautiful trees, hills and water. The first thing I noticed were elephants off in the distance. Instantly, I was in a better mood (elephants seem to have this effect on me) and was even more surprised when Maricel spotted a hippo hiding in the grass a few metres from the restaurant.
We went into our first workshop session where each team took turns presenting their work project, host family and experience thus far. It was cool to hear more about how Marie and Courtney are doing at their SOS Village in Siteki and really interesting to hear from the 5 business students working in Phalaborwa. We broke for dinner and it was so delicious! It wasn’t terribly traditional but it was nice to get a break from Swazi food for a little bit and be able to decide what I wanted to eat instead of being surprised with a plate overflowing with beans and rice.
After dinner we were given an assignment to write about a critical event. It was helpful to get the event out on paper and really force myself to think through something. We wrapped the workshop for the night and got to know each other a little better over card games and drinks. My body was pretty shocked not to be going to bed at my usual 9:00pm.
Saturday started with a lovely buffet breakfast, including the scrambled eggs with cheese that Alejandra and I have been dreaming about. Needless to say, my plate was filled with those and I stayed far away from my usual options of bread or cereal. We started off our workshop by defining and presenting some buzzwords and then got into the Articulated Inquiry. Tamara had us all find topics that we were struggling with and fill out a worksheet to better define the problem and dream up a solution. We got to go sit around the property to work. I sat on a nice shady bench behind a palm tree with Kruger right in front of me. I’m sure the setting must have had something to do with how much I got out of that first worksheet; I wrote a lot and really delved into a topic that challenged me.
After another delicious meal, we broke into interview groups to learn more about each other’s topics. Once those were finished, we all sat outside together and had our topics presented back to the group. It was interesting hearing my topic based on what someone else heard and without being able to clarify anything. It was a very vulnerable place but I was so impressed to hear all of the tough topics our group chose to personally grapple with and publically reveal. During the presentations, Tamara interrupted to point out a herd of elephants grazing just behind us. It was like something out of a movie. There were about a dozen elephants just on the other side of the fence; including a couple of little babies! We all bounded over and pulled out our phones and cameras to capture the moment.
Our workshop ended early on Saturday so Ale, Maricel, Jerod, Shawn and I decided to go on a night drive through Kruger Park. Ale and I had been trying to plan a weekend to Kruger but it was looking pretty expensive and pretty far away. So when we found out Saturday’s session would end around 4, I quickly arranged with the front desk for a three hour night drive through the park.
The initial drive over to Kruger was very windy. We were all getting hit in the face with bugs and who knows what else but we continued giggling all the way there from sheer excitement. We joined a larger safari truck and set off into the park just as the sun was setting. Within the first 10 minutes, our guide, Patrick, spotted a leopard! I hadn’t noticed a single thing but sure enough a small, speedy cat walked out from behind the tree. I barely got a photo in before he was gone; even walking, leopards are pretty quick.
Next we came across some elephants just a few metres from the road. I was really lucky that the big one eating was right next to my side. Unfortunately, my camera isn’t the best, so I don’t think my photos do him justice but it was kind of incredible just to sink into my seat and stare at him. He seemed completely un-phased by the flashes (probably because elephants have terrible eyesight) and just continued eating and doing his thing. Throughout the rest of the drive we came across a big herd of elephants in the bush, a mom and baby grazing and two young ones fighting. It got to the point that our driver wouldn’t even stop, we had seen so many. He did, however, pull over for us to see a rabbit…
The three hour drive was very cold. Ale and I huddled under the blanket they thankfully provided for us. Patrick had explained that viewing animals was all about luck and for a while it seemed like we were pretty unlucky until Patrick got a call and took off speeding into the distance. The guy behind us, a veteran game drive passenger, knew guides only sped for one thing: lions.
Sure enough we pulled up next to another truck to see a lone lioness walking down the road. Ale and I were giddy; we’ve been talking about wanting to see a lion forever! We stayed with the lioness for quite a long time while she hid in the bush, swerved along the road and ate some grass under a tree. She looked so powerful and natural. I love that the animals in Kruger don’t seem to be affected by the cars or cameras. Unlike the sedentary animals at the zoo, they are active and free to wander. Luckily, they let us gawk at them while they go about their business.
The best part of the drive was when we pulled over on a bridge overlooking a stream. Patrick let us all out and instructed us to turn off all of our lights and be quiet. It was pitch black and the only noise was the running water underneath us. Looking up, we were treated to the most spectacular and unbelievable night sky. Filled with so many bright stars, it felt as if someone had plugged fibre-optic lights into a dome just for us. A sky like that just doesn’t exist at home. I was smiling so hard and getting neck cramps from looking up, it was just that beautiful.
After a very cold ride back to our hotel, we sat down for a late night dinner and rejoined the rest of our group. Tamara took us into town to use the ATM and then we all hung out for a bit before another fun night of drinks and games.
On our last morning in Malelane, I made sure to savour the incredibly hot and powerful shower (even better than my shower back at home and leagues ahead of the bucket I’m using here) and enjoy my last plate of eggs. We moved into our session and completed worksheets on the dream and design phase of our topic. Once complete, we all sat outside and shared our provocative proposition and action plan with the group. Tamara made us stand up to present; after all a bold statement can’t be made sitting down. It was kind of liberating to have had the time to work through and plan a response to my challenge and then share the potential positive outcome with the group. Everyone had taken the assignment seriously and really pushed themselves to work through some tough stuff. We closed with some reflections on the weekend including keeping up this motivation throughout the rest of our time in southern Africa.
After lunch we took a family photo before saying our goodbyes and loading back into our car for Swaziland. I felt strangely connected to these people who I had only met a few days ago. We spent a lot of time together and it really felt like we had all learned something and shared this experience with each other. I think it was really important for us to have this weekend workshop. It was an amazing opportunity to take a break and step out of the experience to remember why I wanted to come in the first place and what I need to work on to realize those goals. Before, I found myself forgetting the bigger picture and slipping into a routine of complaining and complacency; the past three days really changed that. More than the wonderful shower, yummy food and awesome game drive, this weekend was about recharging with new friends, new realizations and renewed motivation for the rest of my adventure.