18 days. 14 adults. 7 nationalities. The African Big 5. One incredible trip of a lifetime!
I love to travel – who doesn’t? Well actually, a lot of my friends. But why should that stop me from having the trip of my dreams? In fact, it seemed like the perfect chance to book myself on to a group trip to make some new friends! Knowing I needed to get out of the grind of London for some late summer sunshine and wanting to do something completely different from my day to day, I signed up to spend two weeks volunteering on a game reserve in South Africa to help the conservation and protection of the endangered African White Rhino. You’re not in Croydon anymore Toto.
Our days were spent driving around in the safari truck, stopping to record game transects, observing the incredible African Big 5, reporting on soil samples, monitoring bush fires, doing spider studies (yikes!), tracking rhinos, releasing game into the Reserve and collaring animals as part of the Anti-Poacher Protection Programme.
Nights were spent cooking and braiing as a group, swapping stories around the fire pit, listening to talks by the Reserve’s Conservation Managers, watching movies and gazing up at the milky way, clearly visible from our camp site.
It really was unlike anything I’ve ever done before, and I’m already planning my next volunteer adventure. I’m ready to give back, get under the skin of the country and be more than just a tourist.
Here’s what I learnt while I was away:
1) Strangers can become friends real quick
It’s easy as an adult not to make many new friends. You become caught in a bubble of work mates, house mates and actual mate mates, and it’s not often your circle get wider. Within 24 hours however, I knew all about my fellow volunteers’ lives, how they liked their tea, the names of their dogs, their favourite films, and who has a morbid fear of tomatoes (don’t ask).
Across the course of the project, we swapped stories, shared incredible moments, laughed till we cried and corny as it sounds, became friends for life. Since returning home, we’ve been on various trips around the world, from Denmark to Australia, the Netherlands to the UK, to visit each other and catch up.
2) You can teach an old dog new tricks
Apparently, you really are never too old to learn new things.
Did you know that trees talk to each other, warning their neighbours to release their bitter tasting tannins when they’re being eaten by elephants? By the time Nelly moves onto the next tree, the tannins taste will be nice and strong and the elephant won’t want to eat it, and will move on to find food elsewhere. Clever eh?
And did you know the correct name for a group of rhinos is a crash of rhino? We also encountered daily towers of giraffe, dazzles of zebra, obstinacies of buffalo, leaps of leopard, prides of lion and parliaments of baboon. Waaay better than a bore of commuters!
I can also proudly and correctly identify the poo samples of most African mammals. Mastermind here I come.
3) You don’t have to go for a long time to have a good time
I was only away for 18 days in total – two and a half weeks out of the office – but it felt like a full blown sabbatical! There’s a big perception that you can’t have a “proper travel experience” once you go into full time employment, but my volunteering trip felt like just as much of a break, and just as big of an adventure as the nine months round the world gap year I took when I was 18.
4) Everyone can do something to help
Just like I discovered I wasn’t too old to learn new things, I also found out there are many ways I can help to continue what I learnt on my volunteering project when back home.
I now only shop at Iceland – who actively only use sustainable palm oil in their own brand products and are cutting down on plastics in their packaging. I’m now very aware of the ethicality of various types of volunteering projects and have firmly crossed some travel experiences off my list, having learnt that they are actually extremely exploitative of both the volunteer and the community supposedly being helped. I’ve also signed up to a charity run here in London to help raise awareness and money for the protection of the White Rhino. Every little bit helps.
At STA Travel we work tirelessly to ensure that all our volunteering projects are ethically managed to make sure your contribution really is worthwhile, so you can be sure your trip has a positive impact on you and the community you’re looking to help. We also work with ABTA, following their Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism, to ensure that all animals involved in our programmes are properly cared for.
Feeling inspired to go out there, have an incredible experience, and make a difference yourself? Whether you want to work with animals, children or communities, there are plenty of ways you can get involved with volunteering. Check out some of our favourite projects here.
Or, head over to our full Africa travel guide to Start your own Adventure…