While preparing for our trip ahead, we look back on the previous committee’s trip

The Vet Books Team is like a whorl wind at the moment, getting everything ready for our trip ahead. Even though circumstances are a bit shaky, we remain positive and are doing everything in our power to make sure that our trip will still make the difference it was meant to! Please read below what a previous committee member wrote about their trip two years ago. Reading it gave us fresh vigor, hope and determination to achieve all the goals we set out to achieve!

Vet Books for Africa began long before the physical trip. Most of us can remember being introduced to the project and immediately becoming enamoured by the purpose and scale of the undertaking. I distinctly remember thinking, that while the chances of getting selected were remarkably small, it would be completely silly not to apply for such an opportunity. Being chosen for the 2016 committee was an honour and a great privilege.

The 2 years leading up to the trip were exciting, yet tough. Finding time to plan, fundraise and have meetings was quite a challenge, especially given the time constraints of the veterinary curriculum and the differing schedules of students across two different academic years. What provided much of the drive to move progressively ahead were the responses we got from the faculties prior to the trip. In order to try and deliver resources that would actually be of use to the different faculties, we asked them to fill in wish lists so that we could try and acquire materials that they desperately needed. The responses we got were often surprising, and extremely humbling. We had to try our absolute best to get these faculties what they had requested.

Fast forward to the day of our departure. Most of us were already pretty knackered. Last minute sorting out of books and wrapping boxes upon boxes in black plastic bags were to blame. It absolutely bucketed down with rain the night before the departure and the canopies on the bakkies appeared to have leaked a tad. We didn’t want to travel all of that way with ruined materials, so we waterproofed as best we could, African style.

This didn’t dampen our spirit; we were suitably excited for the adventure that lay ahead. We had gotten off to a late start by default. A supplementary examination had delayed our trip, but we had prepared for this, and we were confident we would make our first stop in Bulawayo on time. Beitbridge border post on the Zim border had other ideas. We thought that the site of our travel and itinerary expert, Travis, a Zimbo himself and looking like a young Kingsley Holgate, would have made even the strictest of border officials give us an easy time. We were, however, mistaken. The trip had hardly begun and we were already brainstorming ideas of an option B in terms of where to overnighting on the very first evening, still on the South African side of the border. Eventually, and I mean, eeeeventually, we got through the border post and were on our way again. We finally reached our first destination in the pitch dark. What a start. The University of Zimbabwe was the first faculty we visited. No sooner had we unpacked our donated items, one of the faculty’s surgeons was already sorting through some of the surgical instruments in order to make up some much needed surgical sets. Crikey. Seeing that was reassuring, and we felt that we were actually were having a bit of an influence. During the tour of the faculty’s small library we found a book donated by a previous Vet Books committee. This was a nice find as it showed that material that was donated over 16 years ago was still being used by learners at the faculty. The students were so welcoming and we loved every second with them. Unfortunately time wasn’t on our side and we had to continue onwards into Zambia and towards our first charity. On the way out we passed through the anatomy hall. Seeing the students hard at graft in front of the various skeletons took us back to late nights during 2nd year, a time that none of us particularly missed.

We crossed the mighty Kariba dam wall on route to Zambia. Unfortunately we were yet again met with border trouble. But nothing that hours of Ukulele and hacky sack couldn’t take your mind off. When travelling in Zambia, and most of Africa for that matter, it really does help having somebody with you that knows practically the half of the continent. Ayla’s family helped us out with some accommodation, in a rather beautiful setting, a fish farm in Kafue. Some of us spent a good portion of the evening frogging in some of the flooded flat areas. We saw some really interesting species and were having a great time before we realised that the area was being irrigated with pig shit. Worth it though. Some of us took advantage of the wonderful weather and slept outside that evening. All kinds of trickery were employed to adequately deploy our mosquito nets in a satisfactory fashion. We were greeted in the morning by a courting display by two African Fish Eagles.

We experienced our first bout of rainfall while travelling to our next overnight location. Some of the locals had told us that we had brought the rains with us and this made us rather cheery. We had a well-deserved rest but woke up to some disgruntled camp staff. When we went to investigate what all the fuss was about we saw the culprit; a large vine snake. We helped the staff usher it off into the bush and into safety. It was also just outside this camp where we managed to first get our hands on local vetkoek and the smallest, yet most delicious mangoes you could ever imagine. 

We visited our first charity in Zambia, the Chipembele Wildlife Education Trust. They do some amazing work with the local communities in terms of conservation education. We were shown the little education centre they have built which was full of different seeds from different species of tree, bones from different animals and all types of excellent educational tools. One quote that was written largely on one of the display bored that has stuck with me, and hopefully too with the many kids that walk through the centre; “We have forgotten how to be good guests, how to walk lightly on the earth as its other creatures do.” Barbara Ward. The trust is also involved with pupil sponsorship programmes and wildlife rehabilitation. Most of the committee were befriended by a little rescue baboon who excitedly jumped from person to person. His friendliness to some of us seemed rather over the top, and I reckon he at times mistook a few of us for an available female member of his own species. Nonetheless, his energy had us in stitches. We also met the resident hippo. Never before have we been so close to a hippo on foot. Even though it was pretty tame, we still had to be careful. As we continued on our trip towards Malawi, we caught the site of a beautiful South Luangwa leopard, while stopping for a lunch and pee break. How’s that for luck?

We arrived at our second charity, the Thuma forest reserve. Just outside of the main office were pillars of hundreds of wire snares, collected on the reserve over the years. “More sweat, less poaching!” is the reserve’s motto. The next morning we were greeted by the anti-poaching rangers standing at attention. We were able to accompany them on a walk through the reserve and chatting to them about a variety of issues was an eye opener. We were able to top up our water bottles and quench our thirst at a natural spring in the reserve; what a treat. We unfortunately didn’t get a glimpse of the elephants that roam the reserve. This is one of the few areas in Malawi where elephants still roam free. However, the views of the mountains and forested areas and the quaint little mud huts that served as our overnight retreats were highlights enough. Our next stop was the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR).As this faculty was established in 2013 and only started their first academic programme in 2014, we were the first committee to visit the school.

It would be worth pointing out that before embarking on the trip, the staff at LUANAR were very sceptical about our project and were very hesitant to acknowledge our legitimacy. After numerous attempts to reassure the faculty, they still believed that we would be yet another group to only deliver false promises. The day before we were due to arrive at the faculty, we happened to bump into a vet at the local grocery store. The only reason he decided to approach us and chat was because some of the committee were wearing Hills branded shirts. He laughed and told us that the faculty still did not believe we were coming but he assured us that he would chat to some of the staff that he knew and make them aware of our presence in the capital.

I cannot recall the reason, but we arrived at LUANAR late, probably about 45 minutes to an hour late. Of all the faculties we kept waiting, it had to be the one that doubted we would ever show face. Murphy. To add insult to injury, we got hopelessly lost on the campus and it soon became apparent that some of the folk on campus weren’t even aware of a veterinary school. After following some directions from passers-by, we eventually found where we were supposed to be; a small hall full of tables and chairs and waiting staff and students. We felt terrible for making them wait, but I think they were overjoyed and relieved to finally see us. We actually did exist and we did infect arrive. The hand over was a great one. We chatted to many excited and thankful students and staff. They were really appreciative of what we had brought. We left the hall and made way to a separate location where a feast was prepared. Some of the local dishes they had prepared were brilliant. After a full belly and a successful handover, we were off and continued our journey to Nkhotakota, on the banks of Lake Malawi.

We met the Malawi Missions crew there; another charity group made up primarily of Onderstepoort students. We slept on the beach and woke up to sunrise over the lake. We had heard stories of the Lake’s size and beauty, but many of us were not prepared for its grandeur. Not long after we were up and about we were playing football and Frisbee with all the local kids. The joy on the kids’ faces was just priceless.

As we continued north, local vetkoek with banana and peanut butter made up our staple for luncheon. I’ve never really been a fan of banana on anything, but man those little meals hit the spot like few things could. At the northern end of the Lake, we managed to navigate up some pretty hairy stretches of road to our next destination, up on the side of a mountain; Mushroom Farm. The place has such a chilled-out hippy vibe about it, and the crapper was just about the most picturesque long drop we’d had ever seen! We set up our tents with a lovely view heading out towards the lake. It was really nice to catch a bit of a break and relax for a little bit. Some of use managed to take a hike and witness some surreal views of Lake Malawi at sunrise. We made most of our down time before we had to be back on the road again, making our exit from Malawi.

We crossed the border into Tanzania and drove for lengthy stretches at a time. We eventually got to the veterinary faculty in Morogoro. Morogoro lies at the base of the Uluguru Mountains which makes the backdrop of the campus absolutely beautiful. We were privileged enough to sit in on an infectious diseases lecture. This was a chance occurrence but one which left a huge impression on us. The first thing that we noticed was the dress code that students adhered to. All students looked smart and extremely professional. None of the plakkies and baggy shorts we see on campus back home. Also, each and every student was paying full attention to the lecturer, not a single cell-phone or laptop serving as a distraction, not because the students didn’t have them, but because they were interested and respectful enough to keep them pocketed or in their bags. Again, something we have never seen back home. Their attention to the lecturer was affirmed by the intelligent and thoughtful questions posed by the students after the lecturer had finished his presentation. These guys were whole-heartedly yearning to be veterinarians. Two of the students were nice enough to take us to a hotel for some refreshing drinks. It was such a brilliant day.

Bush surgery was performed on the small of Travis’ rather hairy back that evening. He had somehow developed an abscess that needed attention. I was pretty gutted we didn’t have the time or budget to visit the Ngorongoro Crater, but at least I got to see a crater of sorts, even if in the bottom of a human’s back. Quite chuffed that some of us had practiced some surgical skills, we up and left for Arusha; albeit with Travis still whining in pain. Jokes aside, that thing looked hideous, I probably would have been sobbing in the foetal position in the back seat pleading for morphine, so don’t feel bad Travis. After passing several Sisal plantations along the side of the road on our way to Moshi, Travis’ spirits (along with the rest of our’s) soon improved upon the sight of Mt Kilimanjaro.

It was here in Moshi that Chris and I decided to chance our hand at negotiating a Jack Fruit. For those who have never heard of a Jackfruit, they are massive watermelon shaped fruit. The skin is green in colour and is covered with multiple pimple-like tubercles. The flesh is yellow and contains multiple large seeds. They can grow to sizes about twice the size of an average watermelon. We had absolutely zero idea what to do with it. After Chris managed to carve up some of it with a knife we gave the flesh a try. This was done with some hesitance, as multitudes of white sticky latex presented itself while cutting it up; a common sign to us vets in training as a trait of toxicity. Alas, it had to be safe, as they were being sold everywhere to be eaten, in markets and on the sides of the roads. Research on the net will tell you that the fruit is sweet and has subtle pineapple and banana like flavouring. It has also been compared to the taste of pulled pork, especially when cooked. This was not our experience. Far from it. We figured we may have tried our luck on a specimen that was not yet ripe.

Sadly, we had to lose sight of the mountain and carry on across the border into Kenya. As soon as we got through the border we began to see the Maasai people, donning their patterned (usually checkered) Shukas. We arrived in the capitol. Travis thought that “Nairobi” meant “sleep in your tent with the door open during rainfall” in Swahili. Let’s just say that he woke up floating and had to retire to the nearby gazeebo for some shut eye. We made our way to the faculty in Nairobi and we had a very successful hand over. We are spoiled back at OP with fancy equipment and gadgets in the skills lab and it was very humbling to see what some of these other African faculties use to gain practical skills. At OP we are lucky to have state of the art equipment to facilitate learning such as the “Breeding Betsy” to practice Pregnancy diagnoses for cattle. Despite their simple means of instruction and practice, I am sure that they still get a lot of learning out of it. The students really impressed us with their knowledge and keen sense of enthusiasm. Some of the students took us around town and to some markets in the city. We cruised around in the buses that transport the locals around town. The best way to describe these buses would be to call them “party busses”. The interiors were decorated with all types of flashy and colourful materials and images with different colour lighting and loud music pounding away. Fold down tv screens playing music videos were also all over the place. Some of the Vet Books team remarked at how cool this must be to use this form of travel regularly. The Kenyan students were quick to suggest the opposite. After a long day of graft on campus, the last thing you feel like doing is getting into one of these things. After they mentioned this, I could imagine the busses to be a recipe for a massive headache and a bad mood. But I guess under the right circumstances they’d elevate spirits. We were on our way again and passed numerous massive tea plantations as we headed towards the Ugandan border.

We arrived in Kisumu (still in Kenya) and caught our first glimpse of Lake Victoria. We had the opportunity to relax for the evening with some live music, Kenyan grub, and more than a few Tusker and White Cap Lagers. Chris was on form as he danced away in front of the stage. Chris isn’t really usually the party type but man was he having a time. What a spectacle. We will always remember the joy of that chap’s face that night. Safe to say we all had a brilliant evening and we even made some conversation with some female Dutch teachers. The boys in the group were either in relationships or had next to no Casanova skills. So it remained just casual conversation.

The next morning was a bit slow from what I recall. The beers had accomplished their goal. We took a quick trip out on the lake and met many a curious hippo after which we had to make tracks. We crossed the equator which was a notable milestone of the trip. We eventually got through the Ugandan border and made our way, still rather “Jinjarly”, to a beautiful place called Jinja. Some argue that the river here, leading from Lake Victoria, is the source of the Nile. Whether it is or not is a technicality. We still thought it was pretty cool that the water here eventually lands up feeding the longest river in Africa, and possibly the world (again, scientists argue), so we took a plunge in it. It is also in this town that decided to buy some Rolexs.

You are probably thinking, why the hell would a bunch of broke students be even thinking about buying expensive watches? Well yes, I would agree, but these weren’t watches, and were actually rather affordable. They were a Ugandan dish that one might refer to as a type of wrap. Basically, vegetables like onion, tomato and peppers (all sliced paper thin with a bloody panga) are fried up with eggs to form a flat omelette type of story. This is then surrounded by a Chapati (which is flat bread made from flour water and oil) to give you the magic that is the Rolex. We were apprehensive at first. But we soon realised they trumped anything Mugg n Bean could offer. Interestingly, the idea of the Rolex initially started in the Busoga region of Uganda but quickly spread to the areas surrounding Makerere University (the University we would be going to), where the students who needed a quick, cheap meal due to time constraints. The name Rolex comes from “rolled eggs”.

At the most northern location of the trip, and with bellies pretty chuffed, we headed south east through to veterinary faculty. Unfortunately, due to staff strikes, there were no students on campus and very little staff. However, we had the great privilege of visiting the “Gorilla doctor” centre, part of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. Just being there was inspiring and allowed us to dream as to what differences can be made to the world as a veterinarian.

After manoeuvring through some pretty hairy Kampala traffic (where it’s every car and bike for themselves), we headed towards the border to enter Tanzania for the second time. We crossed the equator again as we made our way southwards. During this section of the trip we began to see large numbers of Ankole-watusi cattle; a breed with massive horns. This was the first time many of us had seen them. Ayla’s continental contacts again helped out us out with some accommodation on a sugar cane farm. Funnily enough, we had sundowners on the banks of Kagera River, which is disputed by some to be the actual source of the Nile. Unfortunately this river was the also the source ofsome pretty grim sightings during the Rawandan genocide. Numerous bodies had been thrown into the river and were sighted large distances down the river. We drove around one of the farms with large herds of Ankole cattle and man where they impressive. This was when we had the only vehicle trouble of the whole trip; just one flat tire. Once this was changed we were on the way back to our accommodation for the night. We spent the evening catching and attempting to identify knightjar species. For those that are unfamiliar with this genus of bird, they are extremely hard to tell apart without hearing their call. We were soon on the road again and were keeping snug to Lake Victoria for a number of kilometres. It was along this stretch of road that we decided to celebrate a milestone of sorts, albeit that it was a bit belated from what I recall. We had passed the halfway mark of the trip; at least in terms of planned number of days. We had been lugging a bottle of champagne around, if forget where on Earth we got that from, but we had it. We shared this amongst ourselves on a rocky outcrop overlooking the great lake in celebration of what had already been an unforgettable trip. After finishing the bottle and reminiscing of what had already been, we had to hit the road again. The drivers consumed only the smallest of sips and were fit to carry on their duties. We had to make a few unplanned and completely random stopovers as time and direction did not always play ball.

One of nearly all of our most vivid memories of the entire trip was the supper that Chris so kindly prepared for us. Somebody had bought some prized beef cold meat slices to be enjoyed after a few days of some pretty bland quickly prepared starch rich food. Chris quickly identified this to be a key ingredient for what he was going to prepare. The man eats mouldy bread (with the mouldiest sections on the inside of the saamie so he doesn’t see it), but for some reason, we had high hopes. Indeed, we should have known better. Two minute noodles, baked beans, and just about anything else that was taking up space, was added to the meal. Look, it probably wasn’t the most well-constructed dish, but it filled the belly and the look on a pleased Chris’ face was enough to keep anybody content.

We had a long drive ahead of us the next day but the hours passed by in quick fashion as the views were exquisite. We drove through and area known as Baobab valley. As the name suggests, hundreds of Baobab trees littered the landscape contributing to some breath-taking views. Other sections were dominated by stretches of beautiful Miombo woodlands. This drive was definitely a treat. We overnighted at a coffee farm and were kept company by several calling Ground Hornbills.

We entered North eastern Zambia and made our way down to Kapishya Hot springs. The tiredness from several days travel seemed to ease away as we lazed around in the warm blue water. We were then lucky enough to visit Kasanka national park and were privileged to lay eyes on the population of bats that are responsible for the largest land mammal migration on earth. Every year, from October to December, up to ten million Straw-coloured fruit bats migrate from the Congo basin in search for fruit, which usually start developing after the first rains in the area. They congregate in a small area of Mushitu forest in the park. They darken the skies as they leave at dusk every evening to feed and return at dawn to roost in the trees. Scientists estimate that they collectively consume about 5000 tons of fruit every night. The sight of these bats was quite incredible and is one of the few times in my life where I was left with a lump in my throat. Everything for those few minutes just seem to escape from the mind and my eyes filled up with tears. What an amazing place this big ball we live on is.

We proceeded down to Mkushi to yet again utilise Ayla’s popularity with the continent. Here, our bellies were spoilt with divine cuisine and we had all just about forgot about what they had experienced just a few nights back at the hand of Christopher. We headed off to the Zambian Faculty in Lusaka. Unfortunately the students were on holiday, but some had made the effort to come through for the handover and showed us around. One thing that I will always remember about this faculty was the excitement of the librarian who had now just received his new stock for the shelves.  The buildings themselves also reminded us of our faculty back home; same brick design.

We crossed the border back into Zim at the mighty Victoria falls. Even though the Zambezi was not particularly full, the falls were still a sight to behold. Who did we stay with? You guessed it, Ayla’s mates. As we headed south we stopped over at Hwange National Park and visited Painted Dog Conservation. This group does some amazing work in helping to protect this endangered species. Working with the local communities forms the cornerstone of their efforts.

Our last evening was spent in Bulawayo before we made our way back to OP. Beitbridge was luckily far kinder to us this time. Perhaps Travis was more Kingsley like. Forty two days and 13 000 kms later we arrived back where we started. We were all full of mixed emotions; sad that this amazing journey had come to an end, yet extremely grateful that we had arrived back safely. I think we were super chuffed that we actually managed to achieve what we had set out to do.

Thinking back the trip almost four years on, other priceless moments include:

  • Chris drying his underwear on the dashboard between destinations and attempting to get away with a faculty handover in a smart official Vet Books for Africa khaki shirt and boardshorts. Luckily, a few of us intervened and helped him out with some semi clean trousers that he could wear instead of the lumo surfer wear
  • Pieter’s long argument with a traffic officer in Zambia after a dodgy whatsapp video of him “crossing a solid white line”, and Travis’ response to their refusal to reason logically. I genuinely thought I would be spending my first night in prison in Zambia of all places.
  • Chris’ underwhelming dinner. I think I have already spoken about this. But worth another mention.
  • Jess’ face when seeing Chris’ dinner containing the prized beef slices.
  • Wian grilling Gareth over the Walkie-talkie about his absolute failure with his love life
  • One night where Travis, Pieter, Wian and myself stayed up until all hours of the night ridiculing one another and talking about all types of nonsense. Pretty much all of us were crying with laughter at multiple stages. Really a memorable one.
Vet Books for Africa 2018 committee

If you are able to make a donation to aid our trip and enhance the difference we are making, please feel free to contact our Chairman, Gerhard Gregory, at 071 051 9626 to make a contribution.