Eleanor wanted to make a change from her day to day work life and give something back by volunteering abroad. With a strong love for animals and a stronger passion for how they should be conserved, this project was the perfect choice. Here's how she got on:
1. Why did you choose this particular project?
I spent a lot of time deciding where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, partly because it's an awful lot of money to spend and partly because my parents seemed to produce an endless list of dangers and health warnings for everywhere except Europe. I think my biggest piece of advice having done the trip will end up being that it is YOUR trip and it's important to base the decision you make about where to go on that and not what your friends and family want you to do.
For me, I knew I wanted to volunteer as I work for a commercially-minded business and wanted to do something that was not for commercial gain. I love animals and have fairly strong views on how they should be kept and seen by the public and wanted to choose somewhere which fitted in with these principles, which this project did.
2. Which kind of work and activities did you do during your project?
It was full on and varied from day to day but generally consisted of things like tree chopping with traditional machetes, tracking and game counts of the big 5 and prey species, a LOT of digging, and a weekly predator feed for the animals in the predator rehab centre. It was physical work but it was so much fun and also incredibly rewarding to see the roads that you maintained in use and the native tree species flourishing in the areas where you had removed the alien species.
3. How did the culture and people differ to home, and what were the locals like?
Staying in the contained unit of the reserve meant that we didn't tend to encounter locals apart from the rangers in the park, and the people we met whilst exploring more of South Africa on our weekends. I was slightly taken aback by the significant divide which still exists between rich and poor there, and it was fairly common to come across beggars in the towns we visited on the weekends. Visiting a local school which the project takes weekly lunches to was quite overwhelming and emphasised the high level of poverty which still exists there. Despite this, the people were almost exclusively outwardly, and it reinforced to me the age-old statement that 'money does not guarantee happiness'.
4. What was the accommodation like?
Much better than anticipated! I'm not quite sure what I was expecting, but I was pleasantly surprised with the comfortable bunk bed filled dormitories with attached living rooms, and although the bathrooms were not attached, the chilly 3 am dash to the toilet was quite refreshing. The showers were warm and well pressured - something which my university houses and halls had lacked! The endlessly available cups of tea were also much appreciated by my quintessential Britishness.
5. What were the staff and other volunteers like?
Just brilliant! The rangers who arranged all our activities were constantly enthusiastic and really made even the most menial of tasks enjoyable, and the volunteer coordinators Youshaa and Tendai went out of their way to make sure we were having the best possible trip and to ensure that we could do what we wanted to on the weekends.
I don't know where to begin with the volunteers: I have never met a more varied group of people or a group I have been sadder to leave. The group of us who arrived in my week remained a unit until we left, despite being from a variety of different countries and backgrounds. They're people who I will go out of my way to see again - I'm already going to California to visit one of them in January!
6. What was your most amazing moment or your best memory?
I'm not sure I could possibly name just one, although seeing the rhino that they have on the reserve on a night drive, having failed to see them for the whole of my first week, was incredibly special. The memories I will really treasure though are the ridiculous ones with my friends on the programme.
7. Do you feel the work you were doing was worthwhile?
Primarily yes. It was their busiest time of year whilst I was out there which occasionally meant there was not enough work for the number of volunteers but what was perhaps unique about the project was their ability to adapt and respond to constructive criticism. They actively encouraged us to provide feedback after each of the activities and noticeably changed how they worked from one week to the next.
8. What sort of wildlife did you encounter?
So much wildlife! They have the Big 5 on the reserve, of which I saw three: lions, rhinos and elephants. Beyond that, endless zebras, giraffe, wildebeest and lots of different species of antelope! They also had a baby hippo when I was there which was amazing, and the predator rehab centre which is on site provided a unique opportunity to see tigers, white lions, lions and cheetahs which they had generally rescued from the exotic pet trade, and which they were planning to transfer to other parks around the world.
9. What were you hoping to learn while on project, and have you achieved those goals?
I did not go out with any fixed aims or plans. I have just graduated so for me it was much more about having a break before I started my job and doing something a bit different: This project was certainly that!
10. Any tips and advice you might like to pass on to future volunteers?
Do it! I ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ for so long about going and then where I was going, and I should have done it so long ago. It changed my perspective on absolutely everything and I would go again tomorrow given half a chance.
11. What do you have planned next?
As yet, nothing is set in stone. Possibly a similar project in Southeast Asia or South America with some of the same group of people I met in South Africa. Or potentially a TEFL qualification in Southeast Asia with a year of teaching - I have officially caught the travel bug!
Find out more about the South Africa Wildlife Conservation Project here!