Last year I did something I had always dreamed of doing, volunteering with wildlife in South Africa. I stayed for two weeks on a game reserve and helped out with a range activities each day. After many backpacking adventures, volunteering abroad was a whole new experience. Instead of worrying about what I wanted to do and see each day, the main focus was what was best for the game reserve and what we could do to help. I learnt a lot about the local animals in my two weeks and I got an insight into what it takes to run a game reserve.
I booked my ‘South Africa Big 5’ experience through RealGap and I chose to volunteer at Kwantu Game Reserve because of the variety of volunteering tasks you can carry out there (see below), one day you might be building a road and the next day visiting a local school. We also got to go on many game counts where we would monitor the number of a certain animal for their records at the reserve. I’d always dreamed of going on a safari so doing it ‘behind the scenes’ was magical.
Kwantu used to be a village and the reserve was created through buying size of the surrounding farms. I stayed in the Cubs 1/4s accommodation for volunteers which is definitely the superior volunteer house. There was a huge, open living space with a modern kitchen and lounge area. There was also a spacious, peaceful terrace where there would often be monkeys hanging around. I loved sitting out there writing my diary and admiring the view of the game reserve in the distance. One of my most surreal memories from being in South Africa was hearing lions roar as I slept. I grew fond of the sound and greatly missed it when I returned to England, who ever knew the sound of predators calling could be so peaceful?
The only criticism I have of the dorms is the temperature inside. I went in the winter and it was extremely cold. We all slept in piles of blankets and numerous jumpers. I never imagined Africa to be so cold. Apparently most of the winter is fairly mild but they usually have a harsh couple of weeks at some point. I happened to be there in that time. After I left I noticed that my new friends had gone from wearing fleeces, scarves, gloves etc to shorts and T-shirts. I obviously bought the English weather back home with me!
We volunteered 5 days of the week and the weekends were ours to do what we pleased. The volunteer coordinator helped us to organise trips away for us, including Plettenberg Bay and Jeffrey’s Bay (or J-Bay as the cool kids would call it). At Plettenberg bay we did a shark diving excursion and walked with cheetahs (see post here) I wish I had more time in South Africa so I could explore the garden route too, I guess I’ll have to go back!
Each day volunteering at the game reserve would have this format:
7.30-9.00: Activity 1
10.00-1.00 Activity 2
2.00-4.30 Activity 3
8:00 onwards relax
(Read my post here about a typical day on a game reserve)
Some of the activities I completed included:
This turned out to be quite fun! It was very satisfying managing to chop a big(ish) tree down. The reason we did this was because ‘alien’ plants were taking over native plants and therefore needed to be removed. (tip: bring thick gloves to avoid blisters).
This is where you get driven around the fences of the reserve. It’s important to make sure none of the fences are down for obvious reasons. This is quite a fun activity as you can animal spot at the same time.
The best activity of them all. This is basically a safari around the reserve and you count game at the same time. It’s important for the reserve to monitor the number of each species they have. From game counts they have been able to tell if a number of species has increased or decreased and then they can look into the reasons why. We counted springbok, zebras and more. Who knows, you might even spot a lion?
Working in the nursery.
The reserve plants and grows vegetables for the local school. I took part in preparing the soil and planting the seeds.
Bringing food to the local school.
As a teacher, I was curious to see what the local school was like. I enjoyed taking the food to them and seeing the children’s eyes light up. Unfortunately it did seem like the children put on a show for us. They were constantly begging for hugs and grabbing our phones out of our hands to try and take selfies. I must admit, I didn’t like this.
Helping out at the touch farm.
I loved visiting the touch farm and seeing the small animals. I once went on my own when I was back early for a dawn drive. I asked the farmer if I could sit in with the marmosets. He said I could feed them! Sitting in with the adorable little monkeys with them clambering over me whilst I cut up their food was one of my most treasured experiences. (As you can see I got a bit excited and took many monkey selfies!)
Collecting rubble and building a road.
I liked that the reserve never liked to waste materials. Instead of disposing of the rubble they recycled it by building a road. We collected rubble one day and used it to build a road trip next. Fitting the pieces of rubble together was like a game of Tetris and was surprisingly enjoyable.
Feeding the predators.
This involved throwing parts of a dead cow over the fence to the big cats. It was pretty gross and I couldn’t do it the first time but I managed the second time and was proud of myself for doing so! (Warning: you may be asked to chop up a dead cow. I personally couldn’t do this and had to walk away because of the smell)
On your last week at the reserve you will be able to do both these drives. The experience of a night Safari is enough of an experience beside seeing the wildlife. We didn’t see any rhino unfortunately but we did see lots of other animals including the extremely rare caracal! The driver we had was so excited as he said he’s only ever seen 2 in all his years at the reserve. We were so lucky!
We had a dawn drive the next morning. It was my last day and I had nearly given up hope of seeing a lion in the reserve. It seemed everyone else had seen them but me! As we entered the game reserve we finally spotted the main lion, Zulu, in the distance! I couldn’t believe it! We moved a few feet forward and then saw Zulu’s son, Simba, laying down. Zulu walked back down soon after and we followed them for a while. Incredible. Stupendous. Wonderful. No words can quite describe the feeling of seeing a lion in the wild.
I truly loved my experience in South Africa and will never forget it. I’m so glad I finally went for it instead of constantly putting it off.