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In February 2017, WildArk co-founder Sophie Hutchinson together with her husband Mark, moved their young family to South Africa to embark on a project to rehabilitate a 4500 acre ex buffalo-hunting farm and return it to the wild as an extension of the wildlife corridor that is the Greater Kruger.

Why did you decide to move your family to Africa?

Our move to South Africa has been on the horizon for many years.

Our purchase of Pridelands, a 4500 acre, ex-buffalo hunting farm in the Greater Kruger region of South Africa, was our first step towards fulfilling our lifelong mission of protecting as much wilderness and biodiversity around the world, as possible. We did this shortly after launching our organisation WildArk and we saw this land as a wonderful place to start.

We plan to open this property into Greater Kruger and extend the green corridor for wildlife. We want to employ and engage local community here and see people from all over the world enjoy, learn and experience what the African bush has to offer.

Was it an easy decision?

The decision to move the family here while we worked on the property was easy as we have been visiting South Africa regularly for many years. I have been coming here since I was young to visit family and for my Dad’s work, so it feels like a second home although saying goodbye to family and friends in Australia is always hard.

Is this the first time you have done something like this?

No, it isn’t. As a family, we have traveled a lot over the years for work. When my husband started our adventure tour business 14 years ago, we took the kids with us most places we went. The kids were only young when we moved to Argentina to live on a farm in a small town called El Bolson, set in the Andes mountains. We ran a fly fishing tour business from there and would take guests to nearby locations in Chile.

We all learned Spanish and home schooled the kids. When we weren’t on trips, we spent our time horse riding, fishing, and swimming in the rivers, trekking through amazing wilderness areas, venturing to the local markets and picking blackberries and raspberries. It was a happy time, and with no TV or technology, it was the best family bonding time for us all.

During those years we spent many hours on road trips all over the world, and we still talk about this time and how many great memories we all shared.

Those years of travel and adventure gave us all a deep love of the world’s wild places, and it has contributed to why we feel so compelled to protect them.

What have been some of the challenges?

Our move to South Africa has meant some adjustments as parents of little children. We live in a wildlife reserve near our Pridelands property which has safe game, but we do have resident leopards. As a general rule fences don’t keep leopards out.

Consequently, the girls are always with us. We have a no outdoors policy from early evening to first thing in the morning, as these are the times that leopards and mosquitoes are likely to come out. We have had to teach the kids to use what we have called their “Africa bush voices” which means no screaming when playing outside. For two very energetic and far from quiet little girls, this has been a challenge in itself.

What has been the most exciting moment?

The top moment was the news that we had permission to fence off a vacant piece of land that has become a poaching entry point for the Greater Kruger region. By fencing off this section, we will be able to increase the security area of our neighbours and the region as a whole.

The top wildlife moment was a few months back when our WildArk ambassadors, Dave and Emma Pocock visited Pridelands for the first time. On our first drive of the property, Emma spotted a male leopard at the dam now known as “Leopard Dam.” He allowed us to watch and follow him to where he had a warthog kill. He was so magnificent and not bothered by our presence. It was the moment that confirmed for me that we had bought somewhere very special.

What lessons have you learned?

I learn something new everyday! There is so much to learn about our property and how to manage the land here. We have an overgrowth of sickle bush which has meant we have had to do bush clearing and bush packing. I am learning more about tracking, tree species, bird identification and how the whole ecosystem works here. We have a big project ahead of us, and we are learning on the job.

Describe your home?

Our home is beside a dry riverbed where we have animals and birds as neighbours. We have a big braai area, pool and the main house where the kitchen and living area are, but our bedrooms are separate from the house. It has been a great set up as we have had a lot of guests stay and will continue to do so.

What has made you feel most at home living about in Africa?

We have been made to feel so welcomed by the local community, and we have made some lovely friends. We have a beautiful garden with lots of different tree species from Fever trees to Boer Beans, Knob Thorns, and Marulas. The birdlife is so diverse, and I have enjoyed getting to know and identify the birds that exist here.

What does an average day in Africa look like for you?

The guys leave for work early in the truck at about 6am and we take the girls to school for a 7.15am start, so everyone is up and at it bright and early.

We love our drive to school saying ‘hi’ to our animal neighbours, then we head off to the local gym and then it’s onto Pridelands. Every day is different regarding what needs to be done. We set up a bush office where we do WildArk work and meetings. We have had a lot of visitors from work colleagues to friends and family stay, so it has been a full house.

Compare it to an average day in Sydney?

An average day in Sydney has many similar missions. It’s just that in Sydney there is the traffic to contend with and no zebras crossing the road, so the speed is on the one hand much more fast paced in the city, but on the other hand slowed down by the amount of time sitting in a car trying to get places. I feel like I get more done in Africa, probably because everything is close by and easily accessible with no wait time. I feel probably more time efficient overall.

What is so special about Africa?

I think when you have an African wilderness experience it is unique to you! When you look into the eyes of a lion or leopard, it can feel like they are looking right into your soul. Scenes of zebras, wildebeest, impala and elephants on big open plains can seem almost biblical and watching threatened and vulnerable rhinos graze peacefully makes you realize how everything is connected and how you too, are part of this system. It’s a great feeling!

Have you noticed any changes in yourself, if so what?

The big thing I have learned is how much I love the different way of living. There is so much I love about Sydney, the beaches, family, and friends, but I know that I also love living here for other reasons. Here, I love waking up to the bird calls in the garden. My favourite being the two resident African fish eagles who nest across the river bed and mostly I love the wildness.

Having to think about leopards when I am the last to go to bed at night from the main house to our bedroom, makes me feel more alive. I feel more alert as I have to have my wits about me. The adrenalin I get knowing I am lower down on the food chain is one of the exciting (even though sometimes unnerving) parts of living so close to nature.

There is also a sense of freedom here that I love and that I have always felt over the years when we have come here. On top of all that there is a great sense of purpose with what we are doing with WildArk.

 

How is life different for your family now?

Working together as family to build a conservancy on Pridelands is a unique experience for us, and we are all learning a lot while enjoying it, and making the most of it at the same time.

For the girls, their school has been the biggest part of their experience. For two, outdoor-loving children we couldn’t have found a better place for them to go. They run in barefoot, play in the playground which is currently dirt from the recent drought, they play on deconstructed Safari trucks, climb trees, swing from ropes and tear around on bikes. They come home wearing their fun covered in dirt and grins from ear to ear! They are enjoying a free childhood here and my youngest summed it up when she said “I like living here in Africa because there aren’t so many rules” – I understood what she meant!

One morning I received a what’s app message from the school teacher warning all parents to be diligent about walking children into the school grounds as there was a pack of wild dogs seen in the reserve that morning! Not your everyday school note!

What impact do you think this time living in Africa will have on the rest of your lives?

There is no doubt this experience will have a long lasting effect on our lives. The already well-established love of the bush we all have will become cemented. Both our eldest kids have done their safari guide courses here, and now our two youngest are going to this amazing bush school. With the establishment of Pridelands, I think we will always have a connection with this place. I am already dreaming of the moment we see the first elephant walk onto Pridelands. It will be one of the most special moments in all our lives.

What is on the cards for the next few months?

We are going to be busy on Pridelands as there is so much to do and we are enjoying working with the local people.
We have employed a local team of women who are helping us to do some bush clearing either side of the existing fence line to make a fire break and make construction easier for reinforcement. That’s 8km if you count both sides. I can assure you it is hard work especially in the heat of the day.

Follow the story of WildArk and the restoration of Pridelands at www.wildark.com/journal