We chose to join the Big 5 research project in South Africa as a couple because we wanted to spend our money consciously on our vacation, hoping to be immersed in the region much more than we would as regular tourists. Our compassion for animals extends into our everyday life, so we also wanted to visit the game reserves with conservation in mind, learning as much as we could about different species, endangered or otherwise. What the project turned out to be was much more of a glorified summer camp that approaches research and conservation in an uneven and juvenile fashion. And if you choose to stay for the shortest minimum placement of two-weeks, you'll find yourself at a significant disadvantage.
From day one, within the communal space there was an atmosphere of exclusion from the younger solo travelers as well as little direction from staff when it came to building a community at the lodge. The same can be said about project work. The activities that were assigned on our second day of arrival should have been managed by those that were long-term interns, but the groups we worked with wanted nothing to do with any task they knew was difficult. If you can believe it, there were times when those long-term interns "called front row" of the safari vehicles when we went on game drives. It's crazy for an organization like this one where you are grounded in one place for an extended period of time to casually operate in a way that never addressed the clear segregation of people staying on property. To that point, and even worse, is that we had a mid-stay feedback session after our first week where the business manager heard our concerns, said they would do something to improve our second week, and then disappeared from view. We weren't even introduced to them until that session; though he had been on leave the first week, it was still many days after he returned before we knew who they were. My husband commented in the first few days that we literally didn't know who was in charge.
It wasn't just the business manager that was an issue, other staff and guides came and went, because this time of year is apparently when everyone goes back home on leave for various reasons. Holidays are necessary and good, but when a volunteer is only here for two weeks and you never have the same manager or coordinator, and eventually are left with two assistants who are piecing together what they can as they go along, it leaves the short time we are here devoid of any connection or lasting impact, specifically for how we feel we helped with African Impact's conservation work.
Truthfully, when booking this trip, we thought it would be an eclectic group from all around the world, some younger, some older, but all ultimately interested in the same goals and interested in getting to know one another. This was so the opposite of what we experienced that I just don't know what we missed in our preliminary research of African Impact. There's really nothing wrong if parents want to send their kids here for gap years, or internship work, but when that group of travelers turns the lodge into a toxic environment of people constantly talking negatively about other volunteers or about how much they hate a guide or other staff member at African Impact, it corrodes the mission of the organization from the inside. We eventually stopped joining the group whenever we could because we just couldn't listen to the negative conversations anymore.
Even funnier and more poignant about the non-inclusive environment is that they had an event called Sundowner towards the end of our trip which we knew nothing about beforehand. Once we showed up, they asked each of us to pay 50 Rand to be in pictures shot by the photography volunteers, which you can then buy for more Rand afterward. To simply join the group or have some laughs in a photo, they wanted you to donate 50 Rand to a project called Farmers of the Future which we also knew nothing about and felt uncomfortable donating to. At this point we were so done with African Impact and the way the volunteers interacted with each other that we opted out. That left us by ourselves hanging out, while everyone else went out in a field to take photos. It was like we weren't even a part of the team.
Lastly, there are only two weekends to explore other parts of the country when you stay for the short placement time. I had asked many months in advance of our arrival if I should book tours on my own and was told that everything would be sorted on-site. What we discovered is that there have to be a certain number of people interested in a tour for it to run, the weather has to be perfect, and their tour operator has to be in town. As it turned out, literally 3 days before our scheduled tour the first weekend, the lodge manager performed so poorly at his job booking tours for us that he told us what we wanted to do was unavailable and that we had to go it alone and figure out tours for ourselves. The second week, another tour was cancelled less than 24 hours beforehand and many people had nothing to do on their last Saturday here. No other options are provided if your selected tour is cancelled.
Ultimately, the real winner here is South Africa because simply by the country being the country that it is, we were able to see the entire Big 5 and other stunning animals. I have to give major kudos to some guides from Africa on Foot in Klaserie for their passion and dedication; they allowed us to experience each animal and see their natural behaviors. I just wish there were more consistently good experiences during our time with African Impact and that the business manager had taken our feedback to heart with obvious action.
We loved South Africa and all of our experiences with the animals; it's a place not to be missed. But I would highly recommend that any young professional couples stay far away from African Impact and definitely this program in particular. Book a lodge in Kruger, rent a car for yourself, drive around the dirt roads to spend time with animals, or join one of Kruger National Park's many activities. You'll fly home with cherished memories minus the drama.