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Volunteering with wildlife in South Africa

By Anna Hardy

Posted: 16th April 2020 12:42

By Anna Hardy

Upon taking a gap year between sixth-form and university, I knew a stint of travelling over the summer months should be on my agenda, and South Africa had always been high on my hit-list. Having dreamt of doing a safari in South Africa from a young age (mainly attributed to a childhood of watching ITV’s ‘Wild at Heart’ on Sunday evenings), I couldn’t resist the opportunity to book a trip.

Looking into the best options available to suit my budget and safety concerns as a solo traveller, volunteering immediately stood out as the best choice. I was particularly interested in animal-based projects which focused around conservation and sustainable tourism – I knew it would allow me to help endangered animals and immerse into authentic South Africa too. After trawling through endless volunteering choices, I came across Siyafunda – a wildlife and conservation company with various bases and volunteer projects available. Aimed at offering volunteers a taste of a South African safari centred on learning, their Research Camp in the Greater Makalali Game Reserve sounded like the perfect place to experience South Africa. So without further ado, I booked a two-week project and flights to Johannesburg.

Why South Africa?

As a lover of animals, the thought of watching elephants, lions and giraffe graze as the sun sets over the savannah on an African game drive was very appealing. However, what I wanted most was the chance to see the big five and as South Africa is known for its big five viewing opportunities, it was my first choice. The fact that the country has warm temperatures year-round and English speakers throughout the country was an added bonus.

What drew me to Siyafunda in Greater Makalali Game Reserve in particular was its location combined with its ethos of running volunteer conservation projects that offered more than a standard safari experience. Situated just west of the famous Kruger National Park, Greater Makalali allows the same excellent game-viewing opportunities and variety of animals, but in a much smaller and more private area. The reserve’s landscape consists of undulating hills, open savannah grassland and sandy riverbanks, together offering incredible wildlife viewpoints and panoramas across the reserve.

While the animals were the central reason for my trip to South Africa, I was also drawn to its culture and history; South Africa is a cultural fusion, blending older traditional heritage with modern ways of living. South African art, music, and food all excited and interested me greatly, as well as the friendly and welcoming people. Staying in a remote location such as the Greater Makalali Game Reserve offered a truly authentic experience of South African culture.

The volunteering experience

Daily routines at the Research Camp were varied, often involving two to three different activities throughout the day. Frequent game drives provided the basis of each day’s schedule, which involved heading out on the reserve’s dust tracks to spot wildlife and undertake fieldwork such as collating game census and game capture records. Along the way, our ranger would teach us how to track animals by looking out for footprints as we drove along, and how to identify different species of antelope and birds. Upon return, we would enter our findings into computers to collate official game statistics for the South African government.

As proud members of the Rhino Protection Trust, Siyafunda volunteer projects include the tracking and monitoring of the black rhino population within the reserve. Critically endangered due to past poaching, monitoring the rhinos’ whereabouts ensures the protection and conservation of their numbers. But it wasn’t just rhinos we’d spot; the reserve was brimming with giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, lion and endless antelope. Being able to turn off the main track and into the bush to find ourselves within metres of a magnificent lion pack was an incredible experience. However, coming across an elephant herd grazing on a river bank, with the bull elephant coming (safely) within reaching distance of our vehicle was the highlight of my trip – I had never witnessed anything so awe-inspiring in my life.

Maintenance was another activity we’d take part in once or twice a week. This meant clearing dead vegetation to create natural firebreaks around the camps and other essential areas to protect them from wildfires, which are common in the dry season. The weekends were our free time. Saturdays would usually involve a day trip into town to stock up on supplies or visiting a local attraction. For me, Sundays were dedicated to sunbathing atop the viewing deck, taking in the 360-degree views of the surrounding plains and spotting resident wildlife.


The spirit of the camp was all about living communally with each other and the wildlife, embracing the natural beauty of the reserve’s surroundings. With a focus on sustainability and eco-tourism, the camp accommodation was basic, yet essentials were provided. Volunteers shared double rooms with twin beds in simplistic wooden outhouses, with en suite toilets and showers inside. A communal kitchen and open veranda seating area formed the heart of the camp, where volunteers would participate in the creation of menus and the preparations of meals together. The camp also had a pit for relaxing weekend evenings spent around the fire, listening to music and sharing stories, and not forgetting the makeshift volleyball court for evening tournaments.

Set within the heart of the reserve, the camp was surrounded on one side by dense vegetation, and the other was open-fronted and overlooking grassland. With no fences or barriers except for an elephant protection wire, you were well and truly submerged into the South African bush, with duiker (antelope) being frequent visitors. All supplies would be bought at the start of the week from the nearest town, Hoedspruit, which was a 45-minute drive away and would not be restocked until the following week so we had to be resourceful and conscious about our food intake. For a volunteer experience, the accommodation was affordable and comfortable despite its simplicity, providing the ideal base for the daily outings into the savannah.


One of the highlights of volunteering with Siyafunda was their inclusion of local guides and families – some of them descendants of actual tribal members. One of the head guides would often tell us stories of his ancestry and educate us about South Africa’s history. One evening, we had a big barbeque and all the staff came along, some bringing their partners. We sat around the campfire, sharing stories, listening to music, and embracing all our cultural backgrounds.

The food was a cultural experience in itself. We were introduced to the traditional Braai (barbeque), which is a social custom in South Africa where meats are grilled over wood or charcoal fires, and typically served alongside pap – a maize-based polenta dish, a bit like porridge. Our Braai evening did not disappoint, we enjoyed a variety of tasty meats with chakalaka (vegetable relish). Only after finishing were we told that one of the meats we’d eaten was wildebeest – a traditional game meat apparently!

Activities & Attractions

Holy Family Orphanage

As part of the community work completed by Siyafunda, volunteers had the opportunity to visit a local orphanage. Run by Catholic nuns and teachers, the orphanage was home to approximately 90 children, ranging from one-year old babies to 16 year old teens, the majority of which were diagnosed with HIV. In preparation for the trip, we went via a bulk-buy store and, with donations from all the volunteers, purchased essential food and a few treats to bring to the orphanage. On arrival, we were bombarded with smiling children who were excited to show us new trampolines that had just been donated to them.

After a lot (and I mean a lot) of bouncing, we did face painting, had a tour of the class rooms and dormitories, and enjoyed the chocolate puddings we had bought with the children, which caused a lot of excitement. I was honoured to spend an hour running around in the nursery playground with toddlers, happily receiving many cuddles and high-fives. I bonded with one boy in particular, and I still remember how big his smile was to this day. Getting to visit the orphanage, speaking to the nuns and interacting with the children was a truly rewarding experience and I would go back in a heart-beat.

Khamai Reptile Park

My volunteer group and I visited a reptile park in Hoedspruit, home to some of South Africa’s deadliest snakes, during one of our days off. After wondering around and gazing at Nile crocodiles, water lizards and scorpions, we settled in to watch a reptile demonstration where experienced guides showed off some of their most poisonous inhabitants. We witnessed the handling and feeding of black and green mambas, boomslangs and Mozambique spitting cobras – all from a safe distance of course! We were taught many interesting facts about each species including feeding habits, distribution and venom types.

The park is dedicated to protecting reptiles and educating visitors on their vital role within the eco-system. We were lucky enough to be able to handle baboon spiders and a few (non-venomous) snakes – a thrilling experience. Whist I can’t say I held the snake for long, being able to hold some of the reptiles and learn about individual species’ habits made for a fun afternoon out. The two resident squirrel monkeys also provided great entertainment by coming to sit on our shoulders and cheekily swinging from the trees above. We came away from the Khamai Reptile Park with some great photos and, thankfully, a secure knowledge of which snakes to stay clear of when out in the bush.

Bush Walks

Bush walking was one of the most exciting activities I participated in at the Research Camp. Led by a reserve ranger, the walking safari would commence into the bush. Along the way, we were taught vital bush survival skills, orientation and navigation practices, and animal tracking methods. When walking single file through dense bushes and grasses, we had to be vigilant about looking out for game that might be close by and so the rangers taught us key hand signals to use should we encounter any large predators. Walking among dangerous game and learning about life in the bush was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Part of the bush walks also included education about the surrounding flora and fauna. Our rangers would point out significant trees and plant species, showing us how to identify them and their potential uses. Different plants also indicated which animals were in the area, helping us to track any surrounding herbivores. At one point, we were lucky enough to be in close range of a leopard, hearing her calls just a few metres away. Unfortunately, we didn’t catch a glimpse, but knowing she was that close by was enough to satisfy us, and calm our racing hearts.

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