An African Adventure
It was August 2007 when Ria Koppen took time off from work as a nurse and headed to Africa for her first Earthwatch expedition. Ria knew that she didn’t want to go to Africa just as a tourist so a friend suggested she check out Earthwatch and the rest, as they say, is history.
A love for felines led Ria to choose Cheetah while her fascination for archaeology and the opportunity to visit and work in the ‘Cradle of Mankind’ lured her to Human Origins at Olduvai Gorge.
“Meerkats of the Kalahari also called to me, but there was a conflict in timing so the cats and bones would be my focus. I can always plan to do other expeditions next trip,” Ria decided.
She was greeted by Principal Investigator Laurie Marker [Founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund] and her group and was excited to be working with cheetahs of all ages.
“Wow! The CCF had acquired an orphaned baby cheetah, about two months old, and he was to be medically examined after lunch,” she said.
Ria recalls how the examination room was filled to overflowing with CCF people and visitors observing the baby cheetah.
“Man, did he sound like a full grown adult when he was taken out of the box! He sure knew how to growl,” she said.
Cleaning out soiled cheetah boxes dampened Ria’s spirits but a full list of positives far outweighed the turmoil she had faced.
“It was so amazing to be the person going into the cheetah pens to feed them with tourists watching me enviously,” Ria said.
“We did afternoon game counts plus the 12 hour waterhole count. We were scheduled to do different jobs over each day - with one of the most trying ones," Ria recalls jokingly, "was keeping the baby cheetah company.”
Feeding cheetahs from the back of the ute with nothing to prevent them jumping in the back with anxious volunteers except manners, learning about termite mushrooms, checking cameras in areas where volunteers had to use GPS monitors and sewing shade cloth on new enclosures were all in a day’s work.
“We were told that we were the most enthusiastic group they’d ever had – nothing was too hard or boring,” Ria said.
“We had the absolute best time. Because of the game counts we didn’t get a day off until day 10 but nobody complained – we didn’t want to miss anything! I know each group has different experiences but I believe we had the most fun and best time ever,” Ria said.
After such an enjoyable trip, Ria couldn’t wait to get her hands dirty on her next expedition; Human Origins at Olduvai Gorge.
Arriving in Tanzania for her ‘bones’ expedition, Ria and her group assembled and headed off for Olduvai. Adventures never ceased as her group’s van had a flat tyre and overheated, which meant they arrived to camp just before dusk – making it a race to erect their tents.
Ria remembers at one site, finding fossils was a lot easier than expected.
“I was absolutely astonished that fossils lay at my feet on the ground like nuggets, waiting to be picked up – no digging required. As the days went by, the routine was to dig in the morning and have a three hour lunch break then sifting, washing or sorting the ‘spoils’ in the afternoon. " Ria said.
Fond memories of her archaeology trip included eating meals via the light of headlamps and joining in with sing-a-longs around the table and at dig sites.
“We had a great view at night of the bushfires that spread across the hills. It was a quiet, serene place, with the sounds of hyenas laughing in the night and the nearby Maasai bomas celebrating with drumming and dancing,” she said.
Although this African adventure has come to an end, Ria has already started planning her next Earthwatch expedition.
“Which one, or rather, which ones will I choose? I’m not sure, but I know that I’ll be making a difference and gaining such a wealth of experience wherever and whenever I go.”