There are lots of projects you can do at African Conservation Experience (ACE), but I fell in love with The Rhino Orphanage. Right from the beginning, I had phone calls with the staff members of ACE – Georgie in particular. It was really helpful and I felt so guided, because it can be very scary for your first solo flight into a different continent and to start a project like this. Georgie answered all of my questions so thoroughly, helped me through the entire experience, there was no time pressure, and she kept in touch with me which I really, really liked. Even the goodbye at the airport – I couldn’t expect it to be any better, and applaud the entire team of ACE!
When you arrive at The Rhino Orphanage, you will see different buildings. A row of stables for the smaller rhinos are on your left, and on your right is the kitchen, clinic, office, and everything for the animals and organisation itself. Behind this area is the volunteer quarters. I was really surprised when I got there. I didn’t know what to expect but I certainly didn’t expect what I saw when I walked into my room! I had a very luxurious room with my own soft bed, fridge, and well provisioned bathroom which I only shared with one other room. You also have a communal cooking area and an outside area where you can sit with the other volunteers in the evening and chat with them over the fire. The laundry room is there also, as well as the rooms for the permanent members of staff. It’s all very cosy, but I really liked having my own space too.
And the coolest thing, I thought, was that my room was less than 20 metres away from the fence, so you’re super close to nature and the rhinos outside. The sunrises were also so amazing!
A typical day at The Rhino Orphanage doesn’t always start early though! It depends on what you want. It can start at 6am if you want to do the morning feeds. At 6am you start making up the milk bottles and feed the baby rhinos. Afterwards, you dry feed the older animals. If you don’t want to wake up so early and do the morning feeds, a typical day starts at 8am. At 8am, you start filling up the tractor with dry feed – pellets and hay – for the big rhinos outside the camp. They have to be fed every morning and every afternoon. Then you may need to clean up the stables, if any are dirty. That’s the morning routine, and afterwards you’ll have the opportunity to go monitoring with one of the staff members. You drive around the reserve searching for any missing rhinos. You will also be cutting and assembling food for one of the black rhinos, which is part of the monitoring scheme. When you get back, the 11am milk feed will be ready, so it will either be your first or second feed of the day, depending on when you woke up. After that comes the hard work of remaking every pellet bucket – as they go through a lot of pellets! – and fill up the hay bags. Afterwards you can monitor the rhinos some more, which is really beneficial to The Rhino Orphanage, to see how they interact with each other. Lunch is then at 12pm, along with free time. You can relax in your room, in the communal area, or sit with the rhinos. My leisure time was always reading a book with the rhinos. At 3pm is bottle and dry feeding the rhinos again, with monitoring afterwards. Your day typically ends at 5pm and that’s when you’ll cook your dinner, sit with the other volunteers in the communal area, or if you’ve had a very long day you may be in need of a long sleep! There is then the 8pm feed in the evening, but it’s up to you if you want to partake in that. The Rhino Orphanage are so flexible with your schedule that you can make your day as busy as you’d like, or you can take it easier. Typically they will ask you once a week if you’d like a day of rest, and you can choose whatever you’d like to do with that. So schedule wise, I’d say do not worry at all. They are very understanding of what you want and what you do not want to do. Just keep in mind that there is some physical work involved.
A really special experience for me was during monitoring of the rhinos. After the release of two black rhinos almost three weeks ago, before I had arrived, they hadn’t received a visual of them in the wild, so the staff were a bit worried. But suddenly, when I was out monitoring with one of the staff members, the signal started getting stronger and stronger and we followed it and eventually saw Liaki, the black rhino female. She was healthy and even recognised us – she was a bit skittish at first, but it was so amazing to be part of that experience. I think that was one of the most special moments I had there because after all, that’s what the entire purpose of the project is; release the rhinos back into the wild and see them healthy again. It was just fulfilling for me.
My advice for anyone thinking of going to South Africa on a project like this, is from my perspective, don’t have any expectations. Every experience is a unique one. You’re not going to get the same one as a person who will go three weeks before you, nor two weeks after you. Your experience is very much unique and just… go for it! Make your time worth it. Be as involved as possible and have a great time. I know everyone is different, but I like to leave somewhere and feel like I made a difference, and for me, this project couldn’t have fulfilled me anymore because I helped on so many different levels, and it was great to get connections to help later on in life, too. Don’t make a checklist, but turn it around and consider what you achieved after your journey.
The reason I chose to go to The Rhino Orphanage was because I wanted to gain experience in rehabilitation. I already knew quite a bit about rhino rehabilitation centres but this was more beautiful than I had expected. The people, the animals, how they treated them… it was amazing to meet others who shared the same mindset as me. I also hope to find my future in a similar place, and so many opportunities were available to me to gain experience.
ACE provided me with so much more than I could ever have dreamed of. This entire experience has raised the bar for me for future volunteering projects.