Where It All Started: South Africa & Volunteering
January 21, 2014|Posted in: South Africa
If you’re reading this, and you know me, you’ll most likely have come to realise I love Elephants. To me they are one of the most fascinating creatures on this Earth, and because of that have had an uncontrollable need to see these creatures up close and personal in their natural environment ever since I can remember. With this in mind, after graduating from University in 2011 and securing my first ‘proper job’ I started getting itchy feet and that’s when I stumbled across the Real Gap website one lunchtime.
From then, in a matter of days, I had booked onto the South Africa Experience, started budgeting for flights and preparing myself for living out my dream! Six months flew by so fast, and when it finally came to mid-August 2012, before I knew it I was boarding my 23 hour two-stop flight to Port Elizabeth, South Africa!
Our first stop of the experience was volunteering at Kwantu Private Game Reserve which was situated an hours drive outside of Port Elizabeth in the village of Sidbury – where we were taken via minibus by Jeff, one of the brilliant members of the in-country team and resident driver for the 2 weeks.
I didn’t really know what to expect when we arrived, but we were greeted with a very much needed dinner and shown to our rooms to which we would be calling home for the next 7 days. To my surprise, it was a luxurious cabin, with rows of extremely comfortable bunk-beds, our own little lounge with wood burning fire to keep out the cold (because, believe me… It gets cold in Africa!) The volunteers are allowed to roam around the 5-star hotel, using the large sitting areas as well as using the free Wi-Fi to check those all important Facebook messages or to tell family members you’ve arrived in one piece.
For the next 6 days we were emersed completely into the life of a game keeper on the reserve – from clearing trees (with machetes), dissecting a dead cow for lion food (with a machete) and salvaging bricks from an old farmhouse (…with our bare hands!). Every day was an early start with a drive around the reserve from checking fences to trying to find those well hidden and harder to track animals including rhinos, buffalo and leopards.
From the very start we were blessed with amazing luck, meeting the Bull elephant head on in a tree to catching a brief glimpse of the 2 remaining Rhino’s on the reserve on our night drive.
On two of our volunteering days we were taken to help out at the Elephant Sanctuary (which had to be reached by driving through ‘The Wilderness’ – an area of land used to control the numbers of overpopulated game on the main reserve). After trekking up and down valleys we were finally able to meet the elephants. The shear size and presence of the animals is just amazing. I was literally in awe. Speach-less. I took over 200 photos in under an hour. I just couldn’t get enough! We fed them oranges and lemons (donated by a local fruit farmer) and made their beds with fresh branches for a midnight snack. Dream. Come. True.
So, obviously, not all reserves work the same – but there are a few tips I thought I might share with you if thinking about booking this same trip or maybe at a different reserve:
– It gets cold in the winter/spring months (May – Mid October). And I mean English winter cold. Packing layers of warm clothes for these months is essential. There’s nothing worse than driving in a jeep in an open plain when the wind chill is whipping through those summer clothes you’re wearing! Plus, one can never EVER have too many socks!
– There’s a little shop on-site at Kwantu that sells miniature choccies (so take some change for that ever useful sugar fix after working up a sweat in the midday sun!)
– Some of the work is quite demanding, but you don’t HAVE to do everything. But, I would advise getting the most out of the activities! Where else will they let you chop down a tree with a machete where wild lions could be only a few feet from you?!
– Take some work gloves! There’s nothing worse than trying to put up a wire fence or picking up bits of brick with NO protection for your hands.
– Throw yourself in there! If the ranger suggests you should eat a live termite – DO IT! Why not?
I don’t think I will ever forget waking up to the sound of roaring lions call in the morning, or the smell of the rotting cow carcasses in their enclosures, or the constant wonderment I seemed to find in seeing every different creature as we leisurely drove through the vast landscape of the reserve. I really wish I had spent more time there – in fact, I think I could have probably stayed forever if they let me!
Amy is the founder of thewanderlustadventures.com. Currently residing in Reading, UK with a love of adventure travel, writing and photography - she pretty much writes about whatever the hell she wants!