South Africa might not strike you as the perfect place for a young woman on her first adventure away from home, but for a strong willed 18 year old me, that’s exactly what it was. I flew from London Heathrow to South Africa and started my month long stay in the middle of nowhere. To be clear I didn’t go on safari for a month, I actually went as a volunteer via STA travel. Not only do you save hundreds of £ on expensive hotels and safari guides this way but you also get a much more rewarding experience.
Shamwari is situated in the Eastern Cape, near Patterson but is really in the middle of nowhere. As a volunteer, you’ll live in a concrete dorm-like complex but it’s actually really nice and more hotel-like than a dormitory, it’s two to a room but there’s plenty of space and the rooms are cool and clean. The housing complex is actually situated in a fenced off area with no predators but there are animals living there including a heard of rare Cape Mountain Zebra. You shouldn’t stray far from the housing area at night (I almost stepped on a snake) but it’s so beautiful and makes you feel incredibly close to nature. You have breakfast and dinner in a little cafeteria every day and get a packed lunch of a sandwich and crisps etc but despite its gruesome sound, it’s actually always really good food, and is usually traditional South African food including Pap (maize porridge) and traditional soups and stews etc.
Working as a volunteer saves you so much money (in comparison to the luxury safari lodges) but don’t be fooled into believing that it’s a holiday, you do have to work every day 6am-6pm. Mostly work includes chopping down trees from invasive species with machete’s and occasionally capturing live game but luckily it also includes gathering data on animals such as the feeding habits of elephants and the migratory practices of birds. Although the work is tough and tiring it’s actually really enjoyable as well.
The best thing about being a volunteer is that you have access to some incredible experiences that you just can’t get as a paying guest as part of your job, for example darting elephants with the vet team, helping to raise baby animals that had been rescued by local farmers etc. While I was there we tried to save a baby Water Buck (who unfortunately died despite our efforts) but we did manage to help three adolescent Caracals to transition back to the wild.
On top of this, you get to help out at the Born Free part of the park. This is an area not open to guests, it’s an area where animals saved from zoo’s, circus’s and private collections come to ‘retire’. They often have health conditions and cannot be released into the wild so they live in large enclosures in their natural habitat. It’s not all glamorous though, as the work involves chopping up meat with cleavers and chainsaws to feed to the rescued animals but it is definitely an experience not to be missed.
Not all of the work is with animals. Every Friday you head into the local town and to handy-work there. We built a school playground and sold second-hand clothes to locals to raise money for the kindergarten but we also spent a lot of time playing with children. They were all very sweet and friendly.
You also get some fun ‘extras’ as a volunteer, I’m not entirely sure why, but we got taught to shoot and we got to walk with the cheetah (please note this is nothing like walking with lions which I’m totally against click here to find out why you should never ‘walk with lions’ *hint *hint it’s because they kill them once they stop being cute babies-) you can view cheetah on foot from a distance as cheetah are typically non-aggressive to humans.
You definitely get to have a more exciting and hands-on experience as a volunteer, much more so than as a full paying guest and I felt I developed a much closer bond with the staff and with the animals as a result. If you are interested you can find out more here or book via STA Travel here.