You've always wanted a life-changing experience? Learn how to become a volunteer in South Africa, help underprivileged kids or work with a diversity of wild animals.
In December 2014 I received an email from a wildlife orphanage called Daktari, asking me if I would like to visit them in South Africa and experience volunteering abroad with wild animals and children.
First, I wasn't sure as I've never volunteered. And speaking of Africa, I never traveled around Africa except for Egypt which I do not really consider as Africa, more like Middle East.
Like always, when I'm in doubt, I get on Skype and call my mum.
When I told my mother about the trip to South Africa, the only things that popped up in her head were Ebola and Malaria. Jeez...
She told me it would be so much better and safer if I would come home instead. Christmas was a couple weeks away, and of course she didn't forget to mention that the first snow had arrived in Germany.
That was enough to make my decision. I emailed back to Daktari and confirmed that I would come to Africa!
3 VOLUNTEER PROJECTS IN 3 WEEKS
The people from Daktari were very supportive from the day they contacted me the first time. They suggested to have a look at several volunteer projects in South Africa to get different experiences.
Daktari chose a few conservations for me, all of them located around Hoedspruit, an area that is close to the world-famous Kruger National Park. If you have never heard of Kruger Park, that's the place where you see all the Big Five in their natural habitat: Elephant, Lion, Rhino, Buffalo and Leopard.
Volunteer vacations near Kruger National Park are quite popular because volunteers get the chance to see wild African animals up close which can be such an unforgettable experience.
After some research I was full of excitement and decided to give it a go. My mission was to do volunteering for 3-4 weeks and get a glimpse about the life in South Africa and to have the chance to see wild animals.
The moment I arrived in South Africa I was blown away by the breathtaking scenery. First thing I noticed was the silence. I had arrived in the bush.
The wilderness. I was far away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the world. All I could hear was the roaring of the lions at night, and the birds that woke me up in the morning.
I decided to visit three conservations, the Daktari Bush School of course since they were the ones who invited me in the first place and further more I would visit Siyafunda Conservation and White Lion Protection.
Keep on reading for getting more details about each volunteer program. Meanwhile here is a map with the location of each conservation, the National Kruger Park and Johannesburg.
01 | DAKTARI BUSH SCHOOL & WILDLIFE ORPHANAGE
This was the place where I spent my first ten days. I received an incredible warm welcome from the founders and the other volunteers and immediately felt like part of the Daktari family.
Daktari was founded in 2002 by
Michelle and Ian Merrifield. Registered as a non profit organisation, Daktari is a wildlife orphanage for injured animals, but also a bush school for children from local underprivileged
The orphaned animals wouldn't survive in the wild anymore, Daktari takes care of them with excellent facilities and uses these animals as a medium to educate and teach the children about wildlife, nature and environment.
Most of the children have never seen any of the African wild animals. The project helps these kids to develop a sense of responsibility for their heritage by getting involved in an environmental project with wildlife.
THE VOLUNTEER PROGRAM OF DAKTARI
The day usually starts around 7AM. Eight to ten kids arrive every Monday morning and will stay with Daktari for five days. During this time they get lessons from the volunteers about respect and care for the enviroment and animals, but also lessons about safe sex, relationships, violence and drug abuse.
Every morning after breakfast the volunteers take the kids to feed the animals, giving them their daily care and love, but also cleaning the animal's enclosures.
In the afternoon, the kids enjoy the swimming pool while the volunteers can have a little break and relax before they continue with lessons in the evening. After dinner the volunteers do social talks with the children or play educational games before they bring them to bed around 8PM.
MY EXPERIENCE WITH DAKTARI
I saw many many animals at Daktari, but don't expect to see the Big Five*. There are some cheetahs roaming around the property, but also zebras and giraffes show up from time to time.
Daktari is home to more than 30 animals, to name a few: squirrels, monkeys, impalas, donkeys, mongoose, merkats, genet, ostrich, eagles, owl, warthog, porcupine, there is even a crocodile!
There are all kinds of rooms, you can be lucky and get your own chalet with bathroom, or it can be a tent with a shared bathroom. I got my own little bungalow as there weren't too many people staying during my time. Long-time volunteers usually get their own rooms. Everything was tidy and there is staff cleaning the rooms every couple days. Mosquito net, linen and towels were provided.
Hands down, the food was amazing at Daktari! The volunteers did not had to cook or wash dishes or anything! We had an excellent kitchen staff that prepared three meals a day. For breakfast it was fresh fruits, yoghurt, cereals, avocados, toast, butter, peanut butter, jam, juice and tea or coffee. Lunch and dinner was mostly a warm meal combined with fresh salad. I loved the food there, everything was tasty and cooked with love. Fresh fruits were provided every day.
The people at Daktari were such a great group. Friendly, helpful and extremely welcoming. Most volunteers gathered together in the evening with drinks, chatting to each other. The reason for that was probably that there was no free wifi for the volunteers, which definitely encouraged the bonding between the people.
What else to say
The founders Ian and Michelle are one of a kind. They're the most fun and inspiring people to hang around with, both have such a great sense of humor and a big heart. Michelle is the mother for everyone, she was kind and takes care of all the animals, the kids, the nature and the volunteers. She's truly an amazing woman.
One of the volunteers I met at Daktari was Anne-Sophie, a French girl that planned to stay one month but ended up staying a year. You can read here more about her experience as a long-term volunteer at Daktari.
HOW TO APPLY AS A VOLUNTEER FOR DAKTARI
The project is perfect for everyone who loves animals and kids and cares for the environment.
Anyone older than 18 years is welcome to become a volunteer at Daktari.
The minimum stay is one week but you can stay up to a year or probably longer.
If you commit to one year, you'll stay for free and get your own room including three meals a day.
Applications can be send to email@example.com.
More info on the website Daktaribushschool.org.
Last, but not least... Here was a great video produced for Daktari which I'd like to share with you below.
02 | SIYAFUNDA WILDLIFE AND CONSERVATION
I was pretty excited to visit Siyafunda Conservation because this was the place where I would see all the Big Five*!! Let's talk about the conservation first. Siyafunda was founded in 2004 with the goal to provide wildlife monitoring and substainable support for conservation projects and game reserves in South Africa. The collected data helps them to make better decisions for the welfare of the animals.
Siyafunda is located inside the Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve, which is home to countless animals, such as elephants, lions, leopards and buffalos.
The volunteers will get an excellent eco-friendly experience, working and living in the bush, surrounded by wild animals.
The word Siyafunda means "to learn and to teach" in Zulu, therefore the mission is to gain a better understanding of wildlife and the environment. The volunteers at Siyafunda have the fantastic job of monitoring all the Big Five*, but also other wildlife such as birds, cheetahs, hyenas.
THE VOLUNTEER PROGRAM OF SIYAFUNDA
Volunteers start their day early around 5AM with game drives to track animals and monitor them. Other duties are bush walks, property maintenance, meet up with ranchers to compare animal data, bush cleaning and animal counting.
The volunteers go out for another game drive in the evening and finish their day around 7PM with dinner at the open fire. Days can be long and tiring, but the volunteers have a long break during the afternoon where they can just relax, read or sleep.
Sundays are usually off days, however there are trips organized every other Sunday, like a day at the waterfalls near Blyderiver Canyon or visits to other volunteer camps.
MY EXPERIENCE WITH SIYAFUNDA
Two words: Absolutely amazing! This is the place to volunteer if you want to see and get close to lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, buffalos, cheetahs, zebras, giraffes, eagles, vultures, birds and so many more. Expect to find all the Big Five* there! The game drives were absolutely fascinating and I could never get enough of the animals, especially the lion cubs.
I was happy to get my own clean and comfortable room with closet, sink and a bathroom that was shared with the room next door. Usually two people share one room, but I was lucky that not all of the rooms were occupied. Mosquito net and linen were provided.
The Volunteers were responsible for the cooking. Every day two volunteers were cooking while two others were in charge of the cleaning. Weekly menus with easy recipes were provided. The fridge was filled every week and the volunteers could use stuff from the fridge to cook the meals. I found the variety of food great, plenty of fresh fruits, good selection of cereals, different kinds of yoghurt, tea and coffee.
The people of Siyafunda were such a fun crowd, easy-going and very knowledgeable about all the wildlife. Their dedication and love for the animals were contagious. Every evening the group gathered around an open fire and someone told a story while listening to the sounds of the animals. The atmosphere at the camp was fantastic, people were friendly and caring about each other.
What else to say
This is not only a place to see all the African wildlife, it's also a place where you learn a lot of skills about living in the bush and how to identify animal tracks and so much more. A truly wild African experience!
HOW TO APPLY AS A VOLUNTEER FOR SIYAFUNDA
Anyone from 16 to 70 years old can become a volunteer at Siyafunda. The volunteer program is managed by a partner company called Dream Wild Adventures, you can apply directly on the website.
For additional information, check the website of Siyafunda Conservation or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
03 | WHITE LION PROTECTION
This place was actually a sensation. Have you ever seen white lions with light blue eyes? Honestly, I didn't even know they exist. Guess I lived under a rock. Needless to say, after seeing photos of these lions on the Internet I couldn't wait to see them in real life.
White lions are a unique genetic rarity that has occurred naturally in
one place only on earth: the Greater Timbavati region of South Africa.
Nowadays, most of these beautiful creatures are held in captivity and breeding farms. There are very few white lions left who live in their natural environment.
White Lion Protection was founded in 2002 as a registered charity that protects and preserves endangered white lions. With a secured area of 4,400 hectares they can ensure the survival of the white lions and bring them back into their endemic habitat.
THE VOLUNTEER PROGRAM OF WHITE LION PROTECTION
The day starts around 6AM for the volunteers with a game drive, focussed on tracking and monitoring the white lions. It was very interesting to learn how to use telemetry to track the lions.
Besides game drives, volunteers are involved in anti-poaching patrols, bush cleaning, property maintenance, field research but also in cultural programs like visits to local schools.
Sundays are off, the volunteers can visit the nearby Kruger National Park to see the Big Five*, take a trip to Blyderiver Canyon or go horse riding.
MY EXPERIENCE WITH WHITE LION PROTECTION
I didn't see the Big Five*, but the stunningly beautiful white lions made up for that. That's all I came for. It was truly fascinating to watch the white lions every day and analyze their behaviours. Each of them has such an individual personality. I wish I could have spent more time watching these gorgeous creatures.
Volunteers stay in a big and clean house with 2 dormitories, one for males, the other one for females. The dorms are for 3-4 people but I have to say the rooms are really spacious, you still get some privacy if you choose the other end of the room. Shared bathrooms with a bath tub and a strong shower. I shared my room with a French girl who told me very early that she does not like other human beings. Well, that was a promising start. Mosquito net, linen and towels were provided.
The volunteers were in charge of preparing their own meals. The fridge was filled weekly with goods, volunteers could use this stuff to cook themselves a meal. The variety was not as great as at the other places, very limited choices on fresh fruits and cereals. What I found weird was that the volunteers and the coordinators never ate together. Even the other volunteers didn't seem to care much to spend some time with each other, so I often found myself sitting alone in the kitchen and eating just by myself.
I must admit, White Lion Protection was the place I liked the least from all the projects. I just didn't feel very comfortable at the camp. People barely talked to each other. Maybe it was the wrong timing, the wrong set of people, however that doesn't change the fact that I think White Lion Protection is a remarkable project and I really admire the founders for doing such an outstanding job, preserving the lions and raising awareness.
What else to say
My favorite days were the two mornings we spent with Jason (one of the founders) at the Unicorn Game Lodge. He's an amazing personality and very knowlegdeable about the white lions. You can certainly feel his commitment and love for these beautiful animals. He cares about them, more than anything else. I'm extremely grateful that I had a chance to learn about the project White Lion Protection, to meet Jason and his big cats. It was truly magical to witness these beautiful and majestic animals.
White Lion Protection has a strict no photography policy. You are not allowed to take any photos of the white lions unless you require a prior permission.
HOW TO APPLY AS A VOLUNTEER FOR WHITE LION PROTECTION
Anyone from 18 - 80 years with an interest in sustainable conservation and wildlife management is welcome to send a motivational letter to email@example.com.
For more info about the program please visit WhiteLions.org.
SOME PRACTICAL INFORMATION
How to get to Johannesburg
First of all, if you're not in South Africa, you need a flight to Johannesburg. To find the cheapest fares, I'd only recommend Kiwi.com, the best search engine to find cheaper deals.
Transport to Hoedspruit by plane
From Johannesburg you need to travel further on to Hoedspruit. Hoedspruit is the nearest town to all of the volunteer programs I mentioned in this blog post. You can fly to Hoedspruit, but it tends to be expensive because only South African Express is serving that route.
However, if you fly to Johannesburg, check how much the price is for the route all the way to Hoedspruit, it might be only slightly more expensive as you will travel on the same airline.
Same here, use Kiwi.com for the best flight deals.
Transport to Hoedspruit by bus
A cheaper alternative is Ashtons Kruger Shuttle. that runs daily between Johannesburg and Hoedspruit. The journey takes about 5-6 hours and cost R750 ($63). Tickets can be booked on their website. Make sure to reserve your seat at least one week in advance.
Where to stay in Johannesburg
I actually spent a day and a night in Johannesburg after my arrival, which I spent sleeping because of my jetlag. If you need to stay a night, I can highly recommend the Aero Lodge. It's around $40/night for a room. It's certainly not the cheapest option but it comes with benefits: Free breakfast, free pick-up and drop-off to the airport, pool, safe location, great food.
The place itself was spotless, spacious rooms, mine even had a bath tub. Free wifi included. Staff is helpful, and there is 24hrs security. Make sure you stay in a safe place when visiting Johannesburg!
If that's not your taste, have a look on Agoda, there is a lot more hotels and hostels in Johannesburg.
IS VOLUNTEERING FOR YOU?
I came with almost no expectations and South Africa left an amazing impression on me. Ironically, I was mostly looking forward to working with the animals, but then I enjoyed the work with the local kids the most. Seeing these children totally shy and introverted on their first day, but after spending a week with them, they became new personalities, full of joy and excitement about all the things they had learned.
After all, I'm incredibly happy that I came to South Africa! This country amazed me in many ways and the diversity of wildlife was just overwhelming. I would lie if I'd say the African wildlife was good, no, it was absolutely breathtaking! Too many times I wished I had a better lens and could have captured more details.
Seeing wild animals in their natural environment was a truly fascinating experience and often I wished to just stop the time. Thanks to the volunteer projects, they helped me to learn and understand more about the wildlife in South Africa. Volunteering is an enriching experience, that no one should miss.
Thank you for reading.
Have you worked as a volunteer in South Africa? Please tell me about your experiences in the comments below.
* The Big Five is an expression used in Africa, it basically means the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot. The big five are therefore the elephant, lion, rhino, buffalo and the leopard.
This experience was made possible by Daktari Bush School and Wildlife Orphanage, and their partners Siyafunda Conservation and White Lion Protection. All opinions are, as always my own.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sabrina Iovino is the founder of JustOneWayTicket.com. She's half German, half Italian and has traveled to more than 50 countries around the globe. She feels weird to write about herself in the third person, so she'll switch now. Phew...much better! Let's restart:
Hi, I'm Sab! This is my blog and I write about the things I love. Mostly.
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