My life changed in Africa, so I changed with it

“I was born and raised in the Netherlands, amongst the shadows of concrete building and perfectly manicured parks. In a country where at that time had hardly any wildlife left. It was in 1996 when I visited Africa for the first time for our honeymoon and I was eager to see elephants in the wild.”

Our honeymoon trip, booked with a company called Drifters took us through Zimbabwe and Botswana. In the beautiful area called ‘Mana Pools’, we enjoyed an incredible canoe excursion on the Zambezi river. I will never forget the moment I saw my first ever elephant in the wild. He was approaching the banks of the river to drink some water. This trip gave my husband and me many special memories and I knew at that moment that it had changed my life. Ever since that first visit, the wilderness of Africa got under my skin and I yearned to return. We then took some more trips to Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. Each trip left me eager and curious to learn more about the African wilderness I was experiencing.

Lions with a giraffe kill (c) Arda van Dongen

So in 2002, we signed-up to do the four-week EcoTraining programme which, at the time, was known as a ‘tourist’ version of the now known accredited FGASA training. We were based at the camp in the Sabi Sands concession and we had two fantastic trainers: Anton Lategan, now EcoTraining’s Managing Director and Graham Cook. They were both such inspiring teachers and their knowledge of biodiversity was amazing. It was all new to us and fascinating. There was never a dull moment during those four weeks. Memories of highlights from that course included encountering a pride of lions at a Giraffe kill and being able to sit in the vehicle watching them. Anton stopped the vehicle during a game drive to show us a nightjar in the middle of the road and its huge gape. We were following lion tracks and then stopping to give one of the guards who was on his bicycle a lift to prevent him from spooking the lions. We were experiencing a problem with the vehicle and was stationary when an elephant bull was approaching and Anton spoke gently to him in a calm and low voice to prevent him from bothering us.

Herd of buffalo visiting waterhole (c) Arda van Dongen

I can go on and on, but for me, this was a defining time in my life. I loved Africa and knew somehow that I wanted to be a part of this breath-taking country! Unfortunately, life gets in the way and good times fade into the background, but South Africa never left me.

In 2009, I lost my husband which was a very dark time for me and I needed time to recover so I chose South Africa to do so. Being in this wild place saved me and learning more about the environment and our connection to it helped me to heal emotionally. Several years passed, I remarried and after I took David to South Africa for the first time. He was hooked. We went back several times to visit Tanzania, Botswana and Kenya. We were always sad to leave, so last year we decided that we had to make a choice: either follow our dream or give up on it.

Assessment in the field with Graham Cooke (c) Arda van Dongen

So we decided to look into options to move to South Africa and after a lot of stress, excitement and tough decisions, we finally made it! On June 2018, we arrived in Johannesburg, a country that would now be our new home!

I have to share my gratitude to Anton, Graham and Lex for planting that seed in my soul so many years ago. My life over the years has changed dramatically both good and bad and I knew that I had no option but to change with it. I am grateful I took that uncertain leap of faith because I am so grateful to be here today.