Updated: Aug 7
A summary of a wildlife-focused conservation experience as a solo female traveller in South Africa. Featuring highs, lows, need-to-knows and the world renowned big five.
About volunteering with African wildlife and living the safari life!
Embarking upon a month-long wildlife volunteering abroad experience in a new and remote location with unfamiliar faces can be daunting to even the most self-assured of people. Doing so alone in my mid-twenties, and with little experience, felt like a leap into the abyss at the time. However, I have learned that nothing great comes without a willingness to take chances and hopefully discover unexplored pieces of yourself in the process.
Why I travelled to South Africa as a veterinary nurse
I joined a trip as part of Hamba Africa's Long-Term Wildlife Volunteer placement as a solo female traveller visiting South Africa for the first time, looking to gain further experience in conservation and push myself out of my comfort zone.
My professional aim was to learn more about South African wildlife, specifically large mammals, and to gauge my capability of working with these species in the future. With a background studying veterinary nursing at Edinburgh Napier University and later working as a Veterinary Nurse in a small practice, my previous work had been exclusively related to domestic animals.
During my time at the reserve I was very fortunate to meet some like-minded people who were equally as nervous as I was. Throughout the experience it became clear that some of us would keep in touch after returning home and remain close friends, which provided comfort as I was no longer ‘alone’ in my mind. The new-found comfort and ease only enhanced my experience and allowed me to share and receive knowledge, pick up and refine new skills, have deeper conversations around campfires, and enjoy animal sightings with my friends, knowing what each one meant to all of us.
It is my opinion that the people you meet and friends you make along the way will forever be the crowning glory of solo travelling.
Travelling to do a wildlife volunteering abroad placement in South Africa as a solo female requires preparation, not only in terms of equipment, but also mindset and safety measures so that you are ready for the journey ahead. The weeks and months prior to travelling were an essential part of ensuring I was ready for the upcoming experience and the steps below helped me greatly to get the most out of my time.
Committing to the idea of such a monumental adventure is the first step in preparing your mind for the experience, and if you have decided that, you are more than capable of seeing it through. It can be nerve-racking to face the unknown, and for an extended period of time. You can make this easier by ensuring you have made a safe selection and by checking you have all that you will need for the trip. If your travel plans are appropriately in place and you are packed and ready to go, all that remains is settling your mind and opening it to the great things ahead.
The best course of action to ensure you are confident in your travel plan is to firstly investigate the company you are travelling with. Checking the company has some trusted reviews, in addition to a web presence and possibly a social media page can settle your mind when considering if the company is safe and accredited. If there are some reviews or posts from other women it is even better, however a fair number of good reviews from past clients is of value.
Most companies providing placements will supply a kit list detailing the essentials that you should bring with you. I advise that these are followed, even if you do not feel you will need certain items. It is better to be prepared than to need something you don’t have in this environment. To ensure you have everything, it is best to create a list of what you think you will need personally, and cross-reference this with the list provided for you. If you are unsure or need clarification, contact your expedition provider for further advice. As much as you should calculate the number of each item you will need for the time you are away, it is also important to avoid over-packing as you may need to carry your bag at some points and adhere to airline luggage guidelines.
Experiences with South African wildlife in the bush
Like most, the species that has always held a special place in my heart is the African elephant, specifically the savanna (or bush) elephant. I had been telling myself that I would be incredibly fortunate to see one, and that 4 weeks in the bush is a long time, however it was still going to be a fantastic experience regardless of a sighting. Luck was very much on my side as, gratefully, the first day I arrived at the campsite I witnessed an elephant crossing the plains in front of me, and I took this as a sign that I had made the correct decision to travel to South Africa. I have been in love with the bush ever since this encounter and, as many will tell you, your first sighting never leaves you.
A further aspect of the bush to be aware of is that animals are unpredictable, as are their injuries and need for medical intervention. The unpredictability and potential of unique opportunities each day excited me, and helped me get up and out each morning. My perseverance paid off, as I was very fortunate to be able to assist a veterinary surgeon and their team with the intervention of a female lion to change her tracking collar. To call this the best day of my life so far would still be an understatement, and I have been forever humbled by it. As a qualified veterinary nurse, I was tasked with assisting in monitoring the lion’s heart and respiratory rate throughout the procedure. The other students with no medical background were also allowed to assist and observe the procedure and were in as much awe of this as I was, we were all grateful to see such an established predator species up close.
Not all encounters in the bush are at a distance, or when animals are medically subdued. The bush can be a dangerous place for a variety of reasons, and it is important to listen to your guides when they give instructions to ensure you are as safe as possible, and avoid becoming too relaxed simply because you are on a vehicle. I experienced the reality of the bush first-hand when my group came across an elderly lone male buffalo. These lone males are commonly referred to as ‘dagga boys’, which is a term derived from ‘udaka’ – the Zulu word for mud. These males are often found wallowing in mud and can be more aggressive as a defensive measure. When viewing the buffalo, he became irritated by our presence and false-charged at the vehicle. This could have had a negative result if our guide had not acted quickly, given instruction to remain calm and still, and called the buffalo away. My respect for guides and their knowledge of behaviour increased tenfold that day and served as a reminder that I was in a wild environment.
To be a part of something so much greater than yourself is an exceptional perk of travelling to do conservation work, and if you are able to help a wild animal in need, the feeling of making a difference only heightens. My second experience of a medical intervention came about as a direct result of our team when we came across an elderly female white rhino who was struggling to stand and had been injured by another rhino on her rump. It was fascinating to see the procedure of alerting a veterinary team and watching them treat her then transport her to a boma (holding pen) from start to finish, and take part in cleaning her wounds when advised it was safe to do so. The veterinary teams in South Africa are second to none and it was a privilege to witness their process, techniques and respect for these animals in person.
At the start of my 4th and final week on placement, the lead guide Harry mentioned that he was hoping to travel to another part of South Africa where Hamba Africa’s community placement was based. He offered if I would like to join him for a chance to see other habitats and conservation initiatives in South Africa. I was very excited by the idea of seeing more of South Africa and decided it was a unique opportunity… one that travelling is all about!
We left the reserve I was based at to travel to the Kruger National Park, where I had hoped to see the final and most elusive species grouped in the ‘big five’ - a leopard. I had accepted that any sighting of one may have been too much to ask after so many exceptional encounters. Viewing many species in the bush often takes effort, perseverance and patience and by the last week of my trip I was very aware of this. However, after many days of bush drives in the original reserve and a few in the Kruger National Park in my last week, I witnessed two leopards mating on a sunset game drive at the most unexpected moment, only minutes from returning to the camp-site. The visual sighting of these animals was not the most clear, however the roars they made struck me to my core and were unforgettable. Such a chance encounter was very unexpected, and truly speaks of the reality of the bush. Luck and timing can in some instances make all the difference if you are willing to continue trying to find that last missing piece.
Leopard mating video with the audio of their roars:
My travel week in South Africa
During our travels towards the Kruger National park, Harry showed me a few unforgettable areas. Some of these like the Three Rondavels are well known, others like Mount Sheba, a temperate rainforest, are a bit more secretive and is why local knowledge can make all the difference when traveling.
Finally we arrived in the Kruger National park area to spend a few nights at Pretoriuskop. For those planning their travels through South Africa, here’s a list of some of the locations I visited:
Blyde River Canyon
The Three Rondavels
All these locations, (and more!) are included in Hamba Africa’s Travel Week... even activities like white water tubing and micro-light flights which I’ll definitely try next time!
Although Hamba Africa’s main focus is conservation, they know each volunteer or student is different. Some, like me, appreciate the opportunity to explore and discover more of South Africa.
Finding a company with in-depth knowledge of the area and what’s available, one that understands you, is happy to work with you and personalise a placement, even spontaneously means freedom for an optimised and authentic travel experience!
I am hopeful that describing my experience in South Africa has provided an insight into the opportunities that await there; however, it is true that some things must simply be experienced in person to understand their impact.
In truth, I had been nervous to set off on this journey alone, but what awaited me on the other side of the apprehension I was experiencing proved to be far greater than any preconceived notion of ‘finding myself’ I could have pictured in the months prior to my arrival.
What I have gained from travelling in this manner is not only a multitude of practical skills and knowledge, but a greater understanding of myself and my ability to try things that are out of the ordinary. Often, you are capable of more than you are aware of and can thrive in new and unexpected environments alongside others, find joy in the unknown, and can carry the confidence it brings back with you.