Life as a Volunteer in South Africa

Rebecca from the Dovetail team recently spent two weeks as a volunteer on a wildlife conservation project in South Africa. Recognising an increasing significance for eco-tourism and minimising our footprint in a sustainable format, she was keen to give back what she could. Here she shares her experiences.

A wise man known as Aristotle once said: “What is the essence of life? To serve others and to do good.” Living in a world where the concept of self-gratification seems engrained, it’s even more important to look at the bigger picture. I have long felt the call to volunteer, to give something back when I have been so fortunate. In my case, I was moved by my passion for wildlife and in turn, conservation. This was inspired by a recently found love-affair with Africa.

I fell head over heels, with South Africa in particular, on my first visit in 2015 to visit the renowned Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve. The magic and the atmosphere of the Bush captivated me in an instant. And so, when I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to fulfil my dream to volunteer, the perfect project arose in the form of a big five conservation project in the South African bushveld. This was to be for two weeks, working six days a week, to actively contribute towards ongoing research and assist with efforts to ensure a future for the country’s incredible and varied wildlife.

We flew out with a sense of anticipation, unsure as what to expect. We’d been warned that we would be fully immersed in the Bush: it would be hot, hands-on and a true adventure. We arrived to the warmest of greetings from the volunteer team and our fellow volunteers. Hailing from Britain, Germany, Switzerland, France and South Africa, we a were motley crew yet united in our determination to be of use, learn something new and get stuck in. This is exactly what we did.

Rising early each day, it was straight out to undertake the daily schedule of activities. Varied and exciting, each day offered a different experience. We piled in our volunteer car, spreadsheets, compasses and binoculars in hands, ready to go. Driving through the Bush with the familiar call of the grey ‘go-away’ bird as the soundtrack, sun beating down, we revelled in identifying what we could spot. Eyes eagerly peeled, we noted down each and every animal as part of a broader understanding of prey movement, from warthog to wildebeest. With bearings and co-ordinates, genders and age recorded, this would collate to provide a valuable understanding of the local eco-system. Another day would see us performing the same exercise with birds of all shapes and sizes, quickly learning to identify their differing flight patterns and calls.

We learned tracks and signs, reading the Bush to spot the impala that had been running; the dung beetle which had been making his merry way; the gentle plod of the elephant; or the swish of a vervet monkey tail (easily mistaken for a snake at first glance!) We monitored the landscape, observing the slightest movement – or a rush of movement as we were charged by an impatient elephant who was not in the mood for our presence!

When we couldn’t spot these things, the camera traps came into play. With a network of cameras capturing different angles of the Bush, every two days we would head out to switch the batteries, change the SD cards and excitingly, head back to review, categorise and log the images captured. The excitement of spotting lions and leopards slinking past was captivating. When one camera was mysteriously chewed off a tree, the images revealed playing lion cubs as the culprits. They clambered over each other in perfect view of the camera, as if they knew it was there. Each image would be crucial in mapping the movement of the prey and predators in the area.

Reserve work was the Bush version of boot camp, taking our pick axe and shovels in hand ready to remove any roots and rocks which were hindering the process of building a new road. Collaborating as a team, yes it was hot and heavy work, we were covered in dust and dirt, however we laughed more than any other time.

Back at camp, a rota of cooking, cleaning and data management kept us busy, forging new friendships over shared experiences. Two weeks flew by and only reaffirmed my love of the wild. Singularly, our efforts may only make a small dent, but in turn, we were contributing to a much wider cause and helping to secure the future of various species, from big to small, safe to deadly, beautiful to ugly! That provided a true sense of satisfaction.