Being sent on your first big foreign trip is the best feeling in the world. I remember the moment my editor told me I was going. I was in disbelief and tried my best not to scream out loud, but as soon as he left, I called my mum and did a little happy dance round the edit suite. And that feeling never went away; it’s stayed with me, during my whole time in South Africa and even now months after getting back. This is the moment I’ve been dreaming of since I became a journalist.
Touching down in South Africa, after the longest flight I’d ever been on, I was unsurprisingly not sleepy. I was buzzing, and wanted to crack on with getting out there and filming as soon as I could. But after getting through customs with a carnet (the piece of official paper that says what camera equipment you have), a load of kit and sweating like crazy, the incredible team I was with, including my producer Hannah, and two Assistant Producers Alex and Lauren, needed to rest.
We had two projects to do while in South Africa over two weeks, sounds simple enough but believe me, it wasn’t. We had numerous filming locations scattered across the country, in 14 days we took 10 flights, drove so many hours I couldn’t quite possibly count and covered thousands of miles. It was tough. When you look at a call-sheet back in the office, and sit in countless meetings about what you’re going to do, it almost doesn’t feel real. But when you’re out on the road, you soon realise it is.
Logistics aside, we hit the road to do the rhino Special in our second week, flying into Kruger International to start filming in the area. In the first park we went to, the ranger told me “in 15 years, there’ll be no more rhino in the wild”. It was such a damning statement on the situation straight away. But standing there in this park, where he’s had to cut off all the horns of his rhino just to protect them, it was hard not to believe him.
During one filming day, a mother and baby rhino that we were planning to film went missing. Of course you can’t really plan to film with wild animals, but they weren’t where the ranger thought they would be. And no-one had seen them all day. It struck me that this is the situation they have to deal with, day in day out. Usually it’s not a big deal for a rhino and her baby to go off and find some secluded place to hang out. But in an area where a rhino is poached every 8 hours, we were all worried. Luckily at the end of the day, mother and baby were found safe and well. And they even let us get an interview in before sunset.
A little baby rhino called Lofo, is my favourite animal on the planet. And that’s quite a thing to say being a Newsround presenter, we film with animals on a sometimes, daily basis. But Lofo is something else. I met him on my favourite day of filming and got to give him one of his feeds. He was a hungry, big boy, it took three massive bottles of milk, water and vitamins to keep him going. And that was only one of his feeds! I filmed a PTC with him, and it seemed like forever, because I had to do loads of different versions, but he didn’t mind, he stood with me, played with me, and I fed him loads of grass.
Then the head of the orphanage, or “rhino mum” as she likes to be called, told me Lofo’s story. He was found after days wandering alone in the Kruger, crying, hungry and badly wounded. His mum had been killed by poachers, and they also tried to take his horn but he managed to escape. Having spent the afternoon with him, and hearing his story, it all got a bit too much. I did the interview, and as soon as it was over, I had to walk off, and I cried.
The last couple of days on the trip, I went on a night patrol with Scott “LB” Williams, who served in the US military for 17 years. It was pretty intense. He kitted me up in a bulletproof vest, a heart monitoring system and an army knife, just like the rest of his crew. Driving through LB told me about going out at night - listening, smelling and watching out for things that aren’t quite right. He said if there was a slight smell of burning in the air, it could be from poachers who were staying by a campfire. It’s a smell that’s hard to shift. So every night he comes out - listens, smells and watches.
My time in South Africa had unfortunately come to an end, the two weeks flew by, and three flights later we were back in Manchester. In the taxi back from the airport, my driver was South African. I couldn’t believe it! I told him where I’d been and what I’d been doing. He told me he was from a poor township outside Johannesburg, and how he even knew some poachers, and understood why they did it. For him, coming from a society which was so unequal, poaching felt like the Robin Hood solution of the time. Speaking in that taxi all the way home, it truly felt like the project had come full circle.
'Defending the rhino' - a CBBC Newsround special will be broadcast on CBBC Wednesday 11th May 2016 at 1700. Ayshah Tull is a presenter and reporter for BBC Newsround on CBBC. She was on the mentoring scheme as a mentee in 2014.