UNC forward recalls growing up on game reserve in Zimbabwe
Cheetah urine on the curtains, a baby rhino knocking you off your chair and the family’s pet hyena trying to eat you are not the problems of a typical North Carolina student athlete, but they are for field hockey player Samantha Travers, a native of Harare, Zimbabwe.
Travers’ family runs an 11,000-acre game preserve, Imire Safari Ranch, where her parents, conservationists John and Judy Travers, breed endangered species, including black rhinoceros. Recently, Animal Planet filmed a show called “There’s a Rhino in My House” featuring the Travers family.
“Coming from Africa is one thing, but coming from the home that I grew up in is another,” Travers said. “By seven o’clock, we’re at the elephant pens dealing with the elephants, maybe I go for an elephant ride… come home for breakfast there’s a warthog, there’s a mongoose on the table.”
Though the endangered rhinos are dehorned, poachers still attack, slaughtering them for what little horn grows back. The Travers adopted an orphaned rhino, Tatenda, whose mother was killed by poachers.
“It’s the kind of thing that you never think will happen to you, so when it did it literally was like losing somebody in your family, my parents were distraught,” Travers said. “We had just lost an entire breeding herd.”
The Travers also adopted two more orphans, a warthog they named Pogs and Tsotsi, a hyena.
Tsotsi became Travers’ parents’ favorite pet, but she and the hyena didn’t get along so well.
Shortly before she came to UNC, Travers took a walk with her parents and Tsotsi attacked her.
Travers’ mother knew something was wrong and immediately told her to take off and run.
“I got about halfway and I’ve never heard a scream like it,” Travers said. “I turned around and (Tsotsi) had broken free and he was now after me up the hill.
“My mom said she honestly thought that I was dead…(my dad) started running toward me, and I turned around and (Tsotsi) got the back of my shirt and as he pulled me, my dad picked me up.”
From the ranch to the field
Travers helped her parents around the preserve, but she still had plenty of time for sports. In Zimbabwe, Travers played for national teams in field hockey, tennis, squash and golf.
A friend got Travers the contact card of UNC assistant coach Grant Fulton, a native of South Africa, and she was immediately interested in North Carolina.
“I just had to try and prove myself,” she said. “I always knew that no matter what, UNC was my first choice, because honestly how couldn’t it be?”
Despite her national team experiences, Travers said she came to UNC ill-prepared to handle the stiff competition of the ACC.
“I played so many different sports, so everything used to be incorporated into one,” Travers said. “The level was a lot lower. The standards were lower.”
Coach Karen Shelton immediately noticed some bad habits, but she also saw tremendous potential.
“She is a natural scorer, she has a nose for the goal and again, she’s getting better every day,” she said.
Travers is currently second on the team in goals with seven.
Teammate Jaclyn Gaudioso Radvany said the team enjoys having a range of cultures on the squad.
“I personally find it rewarding to meet people from other countries and have different styles coming to our team,” she said. “It’s rewarding to have these connections all around the world.”
A long way from home
The transition from high school is difficult for any student athlete, but Travers had to adapt to the vast cultural differences as well.
Certain situations that are familiar to American students came as a shock to Travers. During her first trip to the grocery store in the United States, she was overwhelmed by the selection.
“I didn’t even know where to look. There were a thousand different types of bread,” Travers said. “Back home, there’s a loaf of bread on the table, you pick up the loaf and you walk out.”
Travers said she’s enjoyed her experience so far in the states, but there are aspects of Zimbabwe she cannot help but miss. Like many students who live far from home, she misses her family the most.
“Chapel Hill is so pretty, but I miss the beauty of Africa, I miss the sunsets,” Travers said. “Everywhere I go in Zimbabwe I see a full sky of stars, you know, it’s all those things.”
Shelton sees that appreciation in the attitude she brings to practice.
“Every day is a treat and she comes happily to practice even when we do the hard things,” she said.
While Travers misses home, she admits there are times when life on a game ranch can become frustrating.
“We had a cheetah that used to always pee on the curtains so the house smelled of cheetah pee,” Travers said. “Things like that are a little frustrating, but that’s life. That’s what I love. That’s what I’m used to.”
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