When I departed the United States for South Africa, I had essentially never travelled outside of the United States before. My experience with ACE and Phinda was a present for graduating High School, in the same wind, my father hoped that it would be an eye-opening experience, and would change my life.
And boy, did it.
When I arrived in Johannesburg, I’ll admit, I was nothing short of terrified. I was an ocean and hemisphere away from everyone and everything I had ever known, pondering the decision I had made to accept such a trip. It was a huge relief to see the ACE coordinator, who was very kind and quickly and professionally took me over to a group of volunteers who were partaking in the numerous experiences that ACE has to offer. She sat me down, and began settling matters. Little did I know that I was sitting next to my roommate during my time in South Africa, and a friend I am confident I will have for the rest of my life.
The people you work with in the wilds of Africa, you will form really strong bonds with. Over many different dinners, many card games (UNO was a very popular one in Sutton Camp, where I stayed), and many memorable experiences, They essentially become a family to you. At the end of the day, you will return to your respective home countries, but you will remain the greatest of friends. It’s wonderful.
To those who dream of working with and conserving animals, I would suggest partaking in an experience like this over a traditional safari. Not only are you viewing these animals, but are also gaining valuable insight regarding the kinds of methods used in the field of conservation. We received a crash course in things such as Telemetry, Rhino Ear Notch Identification, and even Rhino de-horning. The staff you work with is incredibly knowledgeable, and I promise you that when you leave your time there, you will be, too.
Exciting moments are a norm in these experiences: Some from my time include watching a Cheetah teach her cub how to hunt, having two male lions at dusk pass the vehicle within touching distance, searching for and witnessing a massive Leopard leap out of the brush, and even being a passenger in a helicopter. Rhino de-hornings deserve some praise, too. As they were, to me, the most exciting events on the reserve. To be in the back of a truck rushing towards a helicopter that is acrobatically dancing with and darting a fully-grown Rhino. It is without a doubt something you’d think would be out of a movie, and you get to be a part of it.
Would I say that the experience changed my life? Absolutely. When my time was over and I arrived in Johannesburg the second time, I do not believe I was the same person who crossed through O.R. Tambo international airport just three weeks before. You learn life skills and gain confidence you never thought you could in these experiences, and that is something I, personally, cannot thank the ACE team and the team I worked with in Phinda enough for.
To those who are considering partaking in a project with ACE, but are hesitant for whatever reason (be it fear, doubt, etc.) as someone who experienced all the same reservations but still partook in the experience: Do it. Not only will you gain knowledge of African animals and conservation, but you will also get to experience the culture of Africa and the people. Allow yourself to experience as much as you can, because it is truly that memorable. When you return from your experience, you will have stories to last you a lifetime, some of the strongest friendships you will ever make, and you will have hope for the conservation of the wilds of Africa. Witnessing firsthand the people working every day to protect African species from poachers and other problems they face, it gives you hope for a brighter tomorrow for these animals.
And if there is one piece of parting knowledge I absolutely must share with future volunteers, it is this.
Try the Biltong. It is as incredible as they say.