Rise of the Matriarch 2022

Rise of the Matriarch 2022 – Roads Less Travelled

By Cathryn Gill, Rise of the Matriarch 2022 crew member and founder of Pure Spaces Education

The Rise of the Matriarch © is a Blue Sky Society Expedition. The focus of the expedition for 2022 was to spend a month on the road right here in magical Mzansi visiting twelve wildlife and community conservation projects we collectively raised R160 000 in support of. An all-female crew. 30 days. 4000km. A 25 year old Land Rover Defender TDi called Dora and a 2004 Disco 2 called Diego were our chariots for this epic Journey with Purpose. Here is a an account of how it went….

ROTM Leg 1 – Zululand

The ROTM Leg 1 crew packed up the vehicles and left Ballito on a bright, cloudless day in early May. The next couple of weeks held numerous adventures all around Zululand. Six ladies of different ages and stages bonded by a shared love of the open road and a passion for wildlife and wild places. There were a couple of local girls from Durban and Ballito, one from the Netherlands, a South African now based in the USA, another South African currently living in Aotearoa New Zealand and our matriarch/expedition leader, Carla Geyser, who is also Durban-based.

Our first stop was Babanango Game Reserve. A fairly recent initiative to rewild and uplift community through wildlife conservation in the heart of Zululand. An absolutely stunning landscape of hills and valleys with the White Umfolozi running through it. Besides providing an amazing safari experience, their outdoor education programme is inspiring and well-conceived. The reserve manager, Musa Mbatha, is an incredible human. It was a privilege to hear his story and the story of Babanango from this passionate conservationist fireside our first night on expedition.

Then onto Nyalazi Campsite situated just outside the Central Gate to Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve. This gorgeous campsite was set up by Nunu Jobe, the barefoot ranger, and his wife. Two more amazing humans living life on a slightly different path to the rest of us and so much in harmony with Mother Earth. This campsite is simply stunning. Add to your must-stay list today! While here we spent some quality time in Hluhluwe Imfolozi with some young ladies from Wildlife ACT’s wildlife ambassador programme. It was inspiring to spend some time with these future conservationists.

From here we paid a visit to the Zululand Conservation Trust rhino orphanage on our way to Phinda Game Reserve. Along the way we picked up another fabulous crew member joining our convoy in her own vehicle. We stayed at Phinda to check out the Pangolin conservation work happening here in collaboration with the African Pangolin Working Group.

Next stop was Kosi Bay for some barefoot chill time. We stayed at Amangwane Camp and were thoroughly spoilt by our hosts Tony, Lize, Armstrong and Dora, also Katy the cat and Frida the dog. A boat cruise on the Kosi Lake system with Lucky, our guide and boat captain, helped us to understand more about this unique natural system and the 1000 years or so of sustainable fishing by the Tsonga people in this area.

Time to move on again. This time to Tembe Elephant Park. A little taste here and at Kosi Bay of driving through some soft sand. Some 4×4 practice before the real off-road challenges to come in Leg 2. We used the lodge here as a base in order to visit a couple of local primary schools to see Project Rhino’s Rhino Art initiative in action. The legendary Grant Fowlds came along to walk us through the various conservation projects happening in this area through Project Rhino among others.

Our final stop for ROTM Leg 1 was Pongola Game Reserve. We were here to found out more about the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project. This meant spending time with another passionate conservationist, Suzette. Incredible is the work happening here to protect this endangered species. Dr Heinz is the vet involved in the collaring and ear-notching of black rhino in this area. He was also our host at White Elephant Bush Camp. Another stunning spot with mountains, lake and bushveld. It was here we also learned more of the legend Digs Pascoe. Our matriarch, Carla, had a personal connection with Digs and it was a moving morning visiting the old Landy memorial and laying a stone on the isivivane before our departure.

Sitting round the fire under the bright Milky Way watching the waxing of the moon over successive nights towards full. Hyenas, jackal and nightjars our lullaby. Early mornings up with the Crested Francolin or the Hadeda Ibis and the occasional African Fish Eagle call. Breath taking landscapes, memorable wildlife encounters, belly laughs, joy at sharing the road, lots of coffee and rooibos tea and quite a lot of gin, swapping life stories, the wisdom of trees oracle and creating a safe space for those people we visited to share their passion and story….. this is the glorious process of expedition life and we’re only halfway.






ROTM Leg 2 – Limpopo

Time to say farewell to most of the Leg 1 crew. A couple of us stayed on and we picked up a few more from the USA and Canada when we arrived in Hoedspruit for the start of Leg 2. Those of us doing both legs of the expedition made our way from Pongola to a lovely place in Dullstroom to spend an in-between night. Greystone Lodge is a great find and Ilde and Terence are wonderful hosts. Another one to add to the list of must-stays.

Hoedspruit would be our base for the next 5 nights, more specifically the idyllic Bushriver Lodge. Hoedspruit has become such a hub for wildlife conservation over the years accessing so much of the Greater Kruger area and the Kruger to Canyon Biosphere Reserve. The ROTM crew are here to look at the three different aspects of the Elephants Alive team’s work. Carla and her Blue Sky Society have been supporting Elephants Alive for a number of years now. Their vital work in elephant conservation continues and we are so happy to help raising funds for this very worthy cause.

Robin took us out to visit a couple of his beehives in Marula trees. This project uses beehives to protect large, well-established trees from elephant damage. We also visited Jess’ coexistence garden project which is looking at planting wildlife corridor verges with plants unpalatable to elephants and hopefully preventing human-elephant conflict. Both these incredible initiatives are showing great promise. The ROTM crew also got to radio collar an elephant with Dr Michelle Henley and her team. This was an absolutely incredible experience and we learned so much about the value of scientific data that comes from such an invasive procedure making it a necessary conservation science tool.

We also got to spend time with Grant Beverley from the EWT African Wild Dog Range Expansion project and meet a pack in a boma due to be released on a new reserve. We visited a school with the Bush Babies Environmental Education programme and we made our own bracelets from snare wire at the Down to the Wire workshop. It was a jam packed 4 days.

Then it was time for some serious 4×4 adventures as we headed into Kruger National Park to do the Mafunyane 4×4 Eco-Trail guided by the legendary Vanessa Strydom. Vanessa was the first female ranger in Kruger. Carla specifically requested she guide the Rise of the Matriarch crew as we put our 4×4 skills to the test. So fitting and such a treat!

The Mafunyane 4×4 Eco-Trail leaves from Phalaborwa Gate and heads north along management tracks over 3 nights 4 days to Punda Maria – the Olifants River to the Luvuhu River. It is a wild camping experience so we needed to bring everything along with us including water for drinking, dishes and showers. No signal along the way made for a bonus digital detox.

There’s a magic to Kruger, especially in the northern part of the Park. A lot of it is Mopane bushveld which was green and thick from late rains. Only a few Mopane trees turning golden with autumn colour. The air prickles here with wildness even if you aren’t seeing too much megafauna while driving. As we often stayed along water courses there was also beautiful riparian areas with tall Jackal Berry trees filled with the Brown Headed Parrot squawks and Green Pigeon coos. Then that last night as we went north of Punda Maria we came across Fever Trees, majestic Mahogany and Nyala Berries. Brown-hooded Kingfisher and the African Fish Eagle our soundscape.

Besides all the wonderful lessons about geology, botany and zoology, we were there to test those 4×4 skills of ours. The late rains made for some interesting river crossings, crazy dongas to manoeuvre through and a couple of times the winch needed to come out. But us girls kicked ass if I do say so myself! Slow and steady in low range for the most challenging obstacles did the trick. I was very green going into this only having some offroad experience quite a long time ago and Diego the Disco 2 had some quirks to discover. But we worked it out on the first day and with Vanessa’s guidance and encouragement had a wild time. Dora, Carla’s little pink Landy, tackled this offroad adventure like a champ. Car of the trip, though, goes to Lauren’s Suzuki Jimny. The world’s cutest 4×4 sailed over each obstacle as we looked on in absolute awe.

Cooper tyres on Dora and Diego were certainly helpful and we were glad of the Frontline roof racks with all the extras we needed to carry. A compressor also proved useful to inflate a flat tyre to get us out of a jam close to camp.

All too soon, this particular brand of fun came to an end and it was time to head west.

Our next stop was Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site. This was a magical place. We had an extraordinary cultural guide, Johannes, for our wander up the 147 stairs to the top of the famous hill where the excavations of this civilisation revealed the golden rhino, amongst other finds. The landscape here is breath-taking with its sandstone and dolomite rocky outcrops where the Rock Figs cling. And the valleys are filled with ancient Baobab trees. Hard to capture the magic of this place in words or photos, it needs to be experienced first-hand. Our accommodation was across the road from the Park at Mapesu Wilderness Tented Camp.

The last stop on this epic adventure took us further west to the banks of the Limpopo River where it borders with Botswana’s Tuli Block. A beautiful little tented camp on an island in the Limpopo River accessed by a wooden pole bridge was the place we lay our heads for two nights bringing our Journey with Purpose to a close. Island Camp in Limpokwena Nature Reserve.

A last adventure. A last wildlife conservation project to visit. John Davies is part of EWT’s Birds of Prey programme. In particular we are here to find out more about his census of Pel’s Fishing Owl along the Limpopo. In March, John located a Pel’s Fishing Owl nest about 1km from where we’re camped. The plan was to visit the nest again and hopefully ID tag the chick. After some adventuring to find the nest again we discovered the chick did not make it. However, the owl pair had laid again and a younger chick was in the nest. A very special morning to end this Journey with Purpose.

As the Rise of the Matriarch crew go their separate ways we are so overwhelmed with gratitude for what we have seen and experienced these past 30 days. Filled with hope that the fight for wildlife and wild places is in the capable hands of passionate and dedicated humans. Privileged to be a small part of this incredible Conservation Collective. Aware that genuine connections to Nature and to each other have been made while on these roads less travelled.