While I was at university, a couple of professors shared how they have ongoing research projects in Tanzania, and how they’ve previously worked on general research projects around Africa. It really intrigued me and all I could think about was how did you do this? How did you get there? I was blown away by their stories, and as I was taking a lot of wildlife conservation classes it was always in the back of my mind. I was like okay, I’m going to go to Africa. I’m going to make it happen. Somehow, one day I’m going to figure it out.
And then I found African Conservation Experience! When I went onto my university’s internship site, searched for animal internships, I found ACE as previous students had volunteered at the projects. I thought that was really interesting, to know there have been people at my university who have been and done it already. It was really helpful, and I looked at all of the different projects that were available. I did see other organisations out there online but just knowing a student that went to the same school as me had volunteered with ACE made it all the more real.
I would say it took me a really long time to decide which projects to do because I was interested in so much! Originally, before I had spoken to anybody at ACE, I was looking at all the different projects and thought okay, I’m only going to go for a month, or three weeks, but after speaking with a couple of friends and the ACE consultants, it was mentioned that if you’re gonna go, then make it worth it! It changed my perspective on things, and I thought you know what, that makes so much more sense. Why would I go all the way over to Africa and not spend a good chunk of time there?
Above all else, I really wanted a big variety of things. ACE asked me what I was interested in and what I was studying, and I explained that I was interested in gaining lots of experience, learning new things, and meeting people. We eventually decided that I would stay for a longer period of time than originally planned because I wanted it to be worth it. I tried not to have any expectations either – because I didn’t know what to expect!
I started my trip at Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre and went through a transition period – I was initially worried because I didn’t know the other volunteers, there were a lot of different personalities, and I wondered where I fitted in. But soon we all became really close – the people were absolutely amazing, and I got to learn how everyone got to where they are now. That helped me a lot, as I wanted to figure out possible career paths, and making those connections made me excited for the future. I’ve also made a lot of friends. You just have to be open with people and you’ll quickly get along!
I can't pick a favourite - I really did love all four projects!
I first told myself that I wouldn’t build up a connection with the animals because three weeks isn’t that long to build up that type of emotional connection… but it was! It very much was. What I learned at Moholoholo was that you’re with these animals all day long. I knew nothing about honey badgers and I was in charge of cleaning the enclosures of them. I learnt so much about them and still miss them. Hammie and Stoffel, the things they do and their behaviours, their sounds… even the sounds of the lions and hyenas! There really is something special about connecting with an animal. I also didn’t know much about birds before coming to Moholoholo and now I am obsessed with them. Missie, the adolescent bateleur, was amazing. I would sit and watch her and I started noticing her individual personality, and I'm sure she started recognising me when I worked around her.
Phinda was very different to Moholoholo – again, it took me a minute to get into the groove there and learn the schedule, but once I understood the structure it was great. The people working there were amazing – they made me laugh straight away and brought everything to life. We would be driving through the reserve for our general monitoring and they would suddenly stop the vehicle and immediately talk about what they saw without anyone asking them. They explained things really well!
What I really liked about Phinda was that we saw a lot of animals – including the Big 5 and pangolins! – but we also got a chance to do fieldwork, like telemetry. It helped me understand how and why animals are tracked. I did so much at Phinda, like horn trimming, rhino translocating, cheetah de-collaring, pangolin tracking… and so much more! It was great!
Then I went to Botswana. What I really liked about Botswana were the people on the project. Before I went, ACE discussed with me how the Phinda Wildlife Research Project and the Okavango Wilderness Experience were very different. I thought okay, this is the most wild of Africa that I will see.
The day I arrived in Botswana I was welcomed as part of the family, and I immediately felt relaxed.
The camp was amazing, each person had their own walk-in safari tent with two beds inside. You also have an ablution block with two showers and flushing toilets. It was very comfortable living! I also liked how I had my own space to go to at the end of the day.
During my time at the project, I did feel closer to nature. One time when we were out there was a sudden thunderstorm, and there we were, in an open vehicle, moving in and out of pockets of rain during our line transect. We also had a hippo visit us at camp. It was in the evening and we were cooking over the campfire, and then we heard a noise and shone a light over to one of the tents. A hippo was just strolling past, not bothered by our presence. Things like that I will always remember, as well as the authentic cultural interactions I had.
Ever since I had started my research on conservation volunteering in Africa, I wanted to work with rhinos. I’m really happy my last placement was at Care for Wild Africa – this is where I made the most connections with everyone. A woman brought a pangolin in and I could just talk to her and learn about her life. I fell in love instantly with everything there, from making the milk formulas to clearing the bomas. I remember my first day and I saw the volunteers preparing the milk formulas and thought oh no, this doesn’t make any sense to me. But the other volunteers were really nice and showed me how, and by the time I left they were coming to me for advice! So yeah, I felt like I fitted in really well. Again, there was a period of adjustment, like anywhere, because I was in a new place, with new people, with a new schedule, and I didn’t want to do anything wrong. I kept asking questions, which I think is really important, and everyone was so helpful.
The rhinos were absolutely wonderful. Daisy and Modjadji – Modjadji is the sassy little zebra – were my favourite. Feeding Daisy milk was actually really hard because she moves her head around so much while she’s drinking but you have to do your best to make sure the rhino’s head remains level. I also fed the rhinos further out in the field; we packed bales of lucerne into the back of the car and drove out there to drop it off for them.
All of the volunteers at Care for Wild regularly got together which was really nice – sometimes just to chat, to have a drink, to watch the sunset or to go swimming in the river. All of that added to the experience and I could definitely see myself going back there for another placement. I miss it already!
I think you should do a trip like this at least once in your life to grow and learn about yourself, not just about the importance of conservation.
I felt like I needed some guidance to help me figure out what I wanted do in regards to my future, but I also wanted some more independence, and this whole experience gave me that. ACE planned the whole itinerary which really helped me and it made me even more excited as ACE knows what is good, what is not good, so you can completely trust them and rely on their expertise. Just meeting all of these amazing people, people you never thought you’d meet in your entire life, and seeing and experiencing wildlife that you might not see on a daily basis… it was eye-opening.
The level of support I received from ACE was great. I could always reach out to them on the phone or send them an email – it was very easy to get in contact with ACE which was really helpful. I went to four different projects and I was completely looked after. There was always someone holding the ACE sign or a sign with my name on it, so I knew where to go. They were also easy to spot with the ACE shirt on! I really appreciate the support ACE gave me, as otherwise it would have been a lot harder and a lot more confusing if I tried to organise all of it by myself. The whole ACE team is always there for you – thank you!