I recently travelled with African Conservation Experience (ACE), where I volunteered at Phinda Wildlife Research Project. My time at Phinda was absolutely incredible! I was truly blown away by the strong focus on conservation there, and I also got to see more wildlife than I could have ever imagined. I learnt how the whole ecosystem works together to support all of the wildlife that calls Phinda their home.
It was unbelievably beautiful, just like the Garden of Eden - I did not expect it to be that lush and green.
The experience of driving through this paradise in an open-top safari vehicle, with the chance encounters of elephants, giraffes, and rhinos, felt like a dream. Each day was such an adventure, you never knew what you would see around the next corner.
Even though my time at Phinda lasted just a week, it was the perfect project for me. I was able to become quickly involved in the work while being exposed to so many different species. The sight of elephants, cheetahs, lions, rhinos, hippos, zebras, various antelope species, and even a pangolin was simply breathtaking. The birds at Phinda are also really impressive, with so many different species and colours!
The reserve itself is also very diverse with rolling plains, hills, rivers, lakes, and forests. Phinda really has everything.
There were so many highlights, but one of the standout moments was witnessing the relocation of a rhino. It was a huge team effort involving Phinda staff, volunteers, veterinarians, and even a helicopter. Watching the rhino being darted, blindfolded, and carefully moved to a new reserve was nothing short of amazing.
Another special moment happened when I was relaxing at camp in the evening. I heard a noise so I walked over to the edge of camp, where I saw an elephant fully emerge swimming in the waterhole! He had his head fully underneath the water and was really enjoying himself. It was such a special moment for me, as it was just myself peacefully watching him, and I got to see a completely unique moment without disturbing the wildlife.
My advice to anyone thinking of going to Phinda is just to go - it's a perfect, perfect place.
After my time at Phinda, I ventured to Golola Rhino Orphanage and Rehabilitation Centre, which offered a completely different but equally rewarding experience. The project focusses on caring for injured and orphaned baby rhinos, a heartbreaking consequence of their mothers often being a victim of poaching. However, the orphanage is a place of hope and determination. The staff's passion and commitment to saving these young rhinos and ensuring their growth into adulthood is truly inspiring. They are also fantastic with the ACE volunteers. They made sure that you felt welcome and part of the staff even though I was only there for one week.
I was so sad to leave, but I learnt so much about rhinos and the whole rhino poaching crisis when I was there. I feel like I understand things so much better.
One of the best things I've ever done in my life was getting to feed a baby rhino. This is something you have to do at least once in your life. You have a bottle of milk and the baby runs to you and then bottle feeds from your hand. While they drink they make these very cute noises, it's almost like a song.
Combining both projects into one trip, was the perfect choice for me. I had the chance to witness my dream wildlife and actively contribute to their protection at Phinda, and at Golola, I felt like I made a meaningful difference in the lives of baby rhinos.
These two projects really complemented each other, offering a real view of conservation in South Africa. Despite it being just two weeks, it feels like I spent much longer there because of the incredible experiences I had.
What was important to me was that I never felt like a tourist. With ACE, I felt like I got to see a much more honest reality of conservation; some of it was hard to deal with but I'm so glad I know the truth now. This has changed my perspective on travel; I now feel like volunteering is a much better way to see the world. It allows you to contribute to something good as well as getting to do some good yourself!
This was far from a "normal holiday"; it has been a life-changing journey. It has opened my mind and helped me make some positive changes in my daily life. It has also educated me more than I could have imagined. I was lucky enough to see and begin to understand the whole picture of a very challenging topic of conservation in southern Africa.
One unexpected benefit of travelling with ACE was the incredible friendships I formed, even as a solo traveller. I had the opportunity to experience both volunteering in a group with other volunteers at Phinda, and volunteering alone at Golola for a few days, and both were equally amazing. I never felt alone at Golola, as the project staff ensured I felt like a part of the team. In the evenings we would socialise and play games together - getting to know these incredible people on a personal basis was such a highlight.