Words and photos by Villiers Steyn
Every second year, during the first week of the July holidays, sixty veterinary students from all over the world descend on Onderstepoort in Pretoria to join twenty more energetic local students for the event of a lifetime: SYMCO! Symco is short for Symposium Committee, but the event’s official name is the International Symposium on Wildlife Utilisation (ISWU) and since 2008, I’ve been privileged enough to photograph it.
I say “privileged” not because it’s particularly prestigious or anything. In fact, it’s organised for students by students, but never before have I collected so many unforgettable experiences in just two weeks…
Symco usually starts at Onderstepoort with Culture Evening, where the foreign delegates get to explore campus and share local and traditional snacks and drinks. All the usual suspects make an appearance at the South African table: biltong, droëwors, koeksisters, milk tart, and amarula, along with other favourites like witblits and mampoer for the more adventurous. Multiply your image of that table full of goodies by twenty and you’ve got yourself a night that, well, makes the bus ride to the Kruger National Park the next day feel very, very long…
Kruger is the highlight for many students, not only because they often see their first wild lions, elephants and giraffes, but because they get to work with some of the best wildlife veterinarians and game capturers in the business – guys like Markus Hofmyer and Marius Kruger, who get to work with these amazing creatures every day of their lives.
You might be wondering why a SANParks veterinarian would spend two days sharing his time and expertise with a bunch of students. It’s because, in a job that requires as much passion as skill, they know that one or more of these students might be inspired to follow their lead into the wildlife veterinary world. Markus was once a Symco delegate himself; for him and others, this biennial event is an opportunity to pay it forward to the vets of the future.
As a photographer, there’s nothing more exciting than photographing rhino captures, elephant dartings, or star-gazing evenings with top-of-the-range telescopes. Every minute of the day seems action-packed.
After three days in Kruger the busses head south all the way to one of South Africa’s most unspoilt beaches – Cape Vidal. From this tranquil base the students explore places like Hluhluwe-Imfolozi and Lake St. Lucia to enjoy the region’s rich biodiversity and breathtaking scenery, before heading further down the coast to Durban. The highlight there is uShaka Marine World, South Africa’s largest and well-renowned aquarium. Again, it’s not just about viewing interesting and entertaining sea creatures, but about seeing what happens behind the scenes – how the marine animals get there, how the tanks are kept clean and how sick animals are treated.
The last leg of the trip usually includes time spent in the Drakensberg and surroundings reserves, and have included bird of prey shows, game capture activities and helicopter rides for all involved, and even bungee jumping, cultural drumming, elephant feeding and, of course, lots and lots of braaiing.
By the time everybody gets home to Onderstepoort, heads and bellies are as full as notebooks and memory cards, and everyone needs another two weeks to recover…
Africa opens up and delivers its very best for students fortunate enough to be part of Symco, and for their photographer, who gets to go again and again.