$2,500 + airfare + applicable VCU tuition.
Having climbed the famed “chain ladders route” to the top of the Drakensberg Mountains Amphitheatre you stand alongside the headwaters of the mighty Tugela River as it plunges nearly 1000 meters into Royal Natal National Park far below. Which ocean might a raindrop falling on this high plateau eventually end up in? What animal and plant life might it support on its journey? How have this and other rivers shaped the local culture, regional economy, and world history?
These are some of the questions we will explore throughout the remainder of this fast paced, expedition-style course traversing the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal from high in the “dragon mountains” on the border of Lesotho to the freshwater lagoons and marine reserves of Kosi Bay on the border with Mozambique.
Highlights of our itinerary include: exploring the source and headwaters of the Tugela River in the Drakensburg Mountains; going 50 stories underground to tour a major dam & hydropower facility, whitewater rafting to study conflicting demands on the water resources of the upper Tugela canyon; “boots-on-the ground” large mammal wildlife ecology at Somkhanda Game Reserve to learn how water availability shapes animal habitat use patterns; canoeing down the Pongola River to compare its ecology and water use issues with that of the Tugela; game drives in Tembe Elephant Park amongst the last free roaming and largest elephants in South African and other “Big Five” game; learning about indigenous fishing in the freshwater lagoons of Kosi Bay; and snorkeling in the marine protected area off Kosi Mouth. For more details about the itinerary, see Dr. Vonesh’s website
, watch 2017 course video
, and read VCU news article about the course
. Also watch for updates on our course Facebook page
Accommodation throughout our journey will be in tented camps or basic ecolodges; students will be expected to work together as a team and to play an active role in camp life chores and meal preparation. Larger distances between focal sites will be travelled by vehicle. However, much of our traveling will be under human power, including mountain hiking, game tracking on foot, white water rafting, flat water canoeing, and snorkeling. Although no prior experience in these is required, students should be capable of long physical days under the hot South African summer sun. Parts of our journey fall within low risk malaria zones and students are advised to consult with a travel clinic well in advance of departure.
Course and Credit:
- BIOL/ENVS 391 South African Summits to Sea: Human and Natural History of KwaZulu-Natal (3 credits) and lab
- BIOL 477 Biology Capstone experience (optional)
The Education Abroad office will enroll students in the course upon receipt of the registration.
This course explores the relationships between water resources, biodiversity, and human history throughout the major river watersheds of the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa. We will travel from the peaks of the Drakensburg Mountains to the marine protected areas of Kosi Bay on the Tugela, Buffalo, and Pongola rivers. Focal topics of study include, but are not limited to: river ecology; water resource management, wildlife biology, native plant communities, invasive species management, and how rivers have shaped the interactions between Zulu-Anglo-Boer cultures. Student evaluations will be based in large part on:
Airfare is not included. Participants are responsible for making their own round-trip travel arrangements from the US to their destination city. Program directors will meet with accepted students to go over specific travel logistics and may help students in identifying low-cost travel options. For best fares, students are encouraged to purchase their tickets prior to November 15.
Students will be selected based on academic record, an interview, and previous experience with outdoor activities, although prior experience hiking, canoeing, kayaking, or snorkeling is not required. This program is open to non-VCU students and community members.
Students should be advised that this is an active, hands-on program that requires the ability to participate in demanding fieldwork, including carrying a hiking backpack; hiking 5-6 hours over strenuous, uneven terrain in hot and often rainy weather; canoeing or rafting for full days, including over Class III-IV whitewater rapids; and snorkeling.
The names and contact information for 2 references (at least 1 of which an academic reference) must be submitted with your application materials.
Accommodations and Meals
Expect to be roughing it. Accommodation throughout our journey will be in tented camps or basic lodges. Diverse diets can be accommodated (e.g., halal, kosher, vegetarian), however students should be forewarned that the South African diet can be meat-focused. Students will be expected to work together as a team and to play an active role in camp life chores and meal preparation. All accommodations and all but 1 - 2 road meals are included in your program fee.
Dr. James Vonesh has a Masters and PhD in Zoology from the University of Florida and has been conducting research and teaching in Sub-Saharan African since 1994, most recently as a Fulbright Fellow in South Africa
. He is an ecologist and conservation biologists whose research focuses on links between aquatic and terrestrial systems and has authored more than 50 scientific publications
in leading ecology and conservation journals and a bilingual English-Swahili amphibian field guide. This research has been supported by diverse sources including the National Science Foundation, U.S. Army, U.S. Fulbright Program, South African NRF Centre for Excellence in Invasion Biology, National Geographic Society, and Conservation International. Dr. Vonesh serves on the editorial boards of Conservation Biology and Freshwater Science and coordinates the River Management Society "River Studies and Leadership Certificate Program
" at VCU.
Contemporary issues in environmental studies are global in nature, and overcoming these challenges will require problem solvers with a global perspective. Dr. Vonesh is committed to helping students develop a perspective that crosses national borders. He has spent nearly a third of his life abroad, living in Papua New Guinea, England, Japan, Uganda, Tanzania, Panama, and South Africa, and traveling to more than twenty other countries. He has helped lead field courses in Uganda, Tanzania
, and Madagascar
, and Panama
and has ongoing research several of those countries, in addition to his current research in the James River rock pools
. He has served on the national-level review panels for the National Science Foundation, U.S. Fulbright-National Geographic Society Fellowship, and South African student Fulbright Fellowship competition, as well as the Provost's Global Advisory Network, Southern Africa Regional Strategy Team and the National Scholarship Office’s Fulbright Advisory Committee at VCU.
A valid passport is required to leave the US. If a student does not already have a passport, they are advised to begin the application process as soon as they are accepted into the program. The processing time for new passport applicants can be as long as 8 weeks. For students who already have passports, they will need to verify that the passport’s validity dates extend 6 months past their return date. For more information about passports and the application/renewal process, please consult the State Department's website
Payment of Fees
In order to complete the application, students are required to submit a $250 registration fee and deposit. This $250 registration fee and deposit is refundable in two cases: if the program is cancelled, or if a student is rejected by the faculty member based on their qualifications to participate in the program. Reasons for rejection could include, but are not limited to, GPA, lack of a pre-requisite, unacceptable or inappropriate statement of interest, etc. and are at the discretion of the faculty program director. However, if a student pays the fee and is not given final acceptance to the program based on failing to complete application requirements, as determined by the Education Abroad office or faculty director, the $250 is non-refundable.
Students will receive two separate charges to their student accounts for this program: one charge will reflect the balance of the program fee (minus the $250 deposit and application fee) and the other charge is for VCU tuition costs (based on the number and type of credits being taken by the student). These bills will be charged through VCU Student Accounting and will appear on your spring 2018 semester bill.
Please note: While these charges may post to the student’s account simultaneously or separately, it is the student’s responsibility to make sure the account balance is paid before the billing due date.
Withdrawal Procedures and Financial Commitment Policy
All withdrawals must be made formally in writing and submitted to the Director of Education Abroad. Otherwise, the program fee will not be refunded. After committing to the program, students deciding to withdraw will be held accountable for a portion of or the entire program fee based on the following schedule:
- Formal withdrawal submitted later than 30 days before the first day of the program abroad: 100% of the program fee will be charged
- Formal withdrawal submitted within 30-60 days before the first day of the program abroad: 75% of the program fee will be charged
- Formal withdrawal submitted within 60-90 days before the first day of the program abroad: 50% of the program fee will be charged
In the event an unexpected emergency occurs within 30 days before the first day of the program abroad, students must provide a physician’s certification that his/her condition prohibits participation. In this case, refunds will be limited to only those funds VCU is able to recover or that have not already been spent on behalf of the student.
See above for refund policy on $250 registration fee and deposit.
Students should schedule an appointment with their physician or at a travel clinic (such as VCU Student Health) at least 4 to 8 weeks before the program to inquire about recommended and/or required vaccines/immunizations. It is the responsibility of the student to ensure that all routine and travel immunizations are up-to-date.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on recommended and required immunizations for travelers. To view the health risks and requirements for the country to which you will be traveling, please visit the CDC's website
Health Alert: Zika Virus
The CDC has issued a travel alert for countries where the Zika virus is prevalent. Check the CDC’s travel notices
regularly as new countries are being added to this list. Check VCU Student Health
to stay updated as well.
VCU Student Health offers in-depth pre-travel consultation with a health care provider as well as most of the vaccines recommended for safe travel. Prescriptions for recommended medicines are also available. Please visit their website
for full details.
Every effort is made to provide updated and accurate information at the time of publication. The sponsors reserve the right to make necessary changes to the programs and costs. The university reserves the right to revise or alter all fees, regulations pertaining to student fees, and fee collection procedures at any time.