Volunteer Review: Imogen R., African Bushveld Conservation in South Africa
It never really sunk in that I was flying across the world on my own until I was sat on the plane - I then thought “What on earth am I doing? What if I hate it? What if it’s terrifying?”.
It amuses me to think how nervous I was, because I now look back at my time in South Africa as one of the best times of my life. My first experience of South Africa was at Johannesburg airport, where I wandered around lost and confused as it was a massive airport and I am easily lost anyway. However luckily for me the staff at the airport were ridiculously friendly; they came up to me and asked how I was, how my day was going and then asked how they could help - it was brilliant!
People always talk about how polite the British are, but my personal observations show that airport staff in South Africa are definitely nicer, if not easily bemused by my attempts to speak Afrikaans.
I then took a tiny plane to Botswana, where I was warmly greeted by two more of the Projects Abroad staff, and their window-less land rover. Admittedly the land rover was one of my favorite aspects of the trip, just the feeling of the wind on my face and all that. Unfortunately I lost my hat whilst in the land rover and when we drove back to get it the next day it was gone - I presume some baboons got it, so I’m safe in the knowledge that I have brightened up a baboons life, and made it that little bit more stylish!
When we first got to camp, I was absolutely terrified - there was about 30-40 people there, of all different nationalities and ages. I was scared because I was the youngest there and I don’t like being in large groups of people, but everyone was so nice and friendly that it was easy to relax around the campfire.
I loved the campfire at nights. We had a drum circle around it one night, we ate around it, it provided us with warmth and I wrote my diary in front it. Looking at my diary makes me laugh because I have put in facts that I have learnt, like do you know that impala jump up high when they sense a predator to show how strong they are? Who knew!
Our first activity was bird watching, which was great fun, partly because we saw hippopotami – they’re huge! It was quite funny as I was taking photos of them with my snazzy camera with its massive lens, whilst the French guy next to me was taking photos on this old phone; he looked at my camera, then his phone and then swore in French - very funny.
I tried some great and weird food on the trip, for example pancakes with jam, cheese and syrup. It was actually surprisingly nice, and it’s always good to try something new every so often.
Every day we went around in our groups (my group had 7 people in it) and did different activities. One day my group was learning about the medicinal uses of trees (do you know that the vast majority of tree bark can help treat diarrhea due to the chemical tannin; another interesting fact I learnt), so we were walking through the bush when Andrew, one of the Projects Abroad staff members, was trying to find the seed of a tree to talk about it. One of the guys in my group picked up something and asked if that was the seed and Andrew replied “No, that’s impala poo.” It was hilarious!
The next day we went on a research drive, and I got to look for cat tracks. I loved it but my mother would have had a heart attack if she saw me! Another thing I learned to do on this trip was tea drinking - I wasn’t a massive tea drinker before I left, but the -10 degree Celsius temperatures quickly persuaded me otherwise. South Africa actually made me more British, who would of thought it?
We then saw a family of elephants at one of the drinking holes, being close to about 15 of the world’s largest land mammal is a pretty amazing experience I can tell you.
We went to another camp in the Botswana area to meet with Helena to learn about bird watching. Helena is an amazing woman, she has so many stories its ridiculous, but I will tell you my favorite. She is an animal rehabilitator, which means she takes in injured or sick animals, looks after them and then returns them to the wild with as little human intervention as possible. She was looking after two lion cubs that had been orphaned, they slept in a tent in the garden as young cubs, and later released them back in the wild, knowing that they only had a 50/50 chance of survival due to the fact they didn’t have a pack or pride to join.
She went to the same area later a few years on, set up a chair and tent and sat there with her binoculars looking for her lions. Two lions appeared in the distance which looked familiar, and she soon realized that they were getting closer. She was backed up against her car when one of the lions came up to her and licked her! They then proceeded to sleep in the tent that she had! You have to go to South Africa to meet her if nothing else!
In the evenings we played poker which I rather enjoyed, even if the Italian cheated and won! Another fun activity I did was fishing - in the main camp there is a small bridge to a little island where a few people and I set up chairs and did a bit of fishing which was a fun new experience. Halfway into my trip (one week in) we went to Alldays, the nearest town, where I bought tons of chocolate and cream soda, which was bright green! I still buy that cream soda from a South African shop near my home, I just love it!
Before I left I learnt quite a bit of Setswana from the Botswana tourism site as I thought I would need to use it quite a lot, turns out I didn’t have to at all, but I did talk to the cooking and cleaning staff at the camp who were local to Botswana. They found it very amusing as I tried to pronounce everything and couldn’t understanding when they replied to me, but I really enjoyed talking to them, and it’s always good to know another language.
At the end of my trip I stayed in hotels for the last two nights, which was really fun; making microwave pita crisp pizzas and just generally having a laugh were highlights. We stopped off at a McDonald’s on the way to the airport, and I’m ashamed to say that even though I did try to embrace South African and Botswana food, I stuffed my face with so many chicken nuggets it was inhuman. I am ashamed to say I did miss the grease of American food, even though I very much enjoyed the food at camp, especially milk tart which is definitely worth a try.
On the plane back home I reflected upon my time in South Africa and thought how lucky I was to have had the opportunity to go and also have an amazing time and learn so much. I feel changed as a person. I would recommend it to anyone. If you have the chance, take it. It was the best decision of my life and I am so glad I didn’t chicken out and that I threw myself into the whole experience.
This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Program Advisors.