I have always wanted to travel to Africa and as a single female traveller, never quite plucked up the courage to do so. That was until I found the LEO Africa project.
LEO made it easy to arrange my trip and right from the start, it was clear that the staff were very supportive by answering all of my questions about what to pack and what to expect and if you are willing to time your arrival in to Phalaborwa just right, the team will even pick you up and take you back on your departure.
If you arrive on the first flight, you may have to pass time with the staff in town to wait for anyone arriving later by bus. We had a wander around the shops, bought some supplies and then had a drink whilst getting to know a bit more about whom I was going to be staying the next few weeks with. It was during this time (and asking poor Stacey lots of questions) that I came to realise that we weren't going to 'play' at conservation, we were going to get quite hands on and play a vital role in to the research that maintains this contained and delicate eco system.
Upon arrival at the base camp, you are warmly greeted by all the other volunteers and staff, shown around, joined everyone for the evening meal and given your bed. I arrived after sun down and after a long 30 hour trip; I could only manage a few introductions before I was tucked up for an early night in my bunk!
Waking up on day 1, sitting on the patio at the back of the house with the sun rising over the koppies, this beautiful place hits you. The landscape is amazing, you can see for miles and knowing that this place is your home for the oncoming weeks is a good feeling.
The first morning, we were given a full orientation talk that covers the roles we would be doing, the rota's, the health and safety requirements and the rules of the house. The house is wonderfully self sufficient with solar power and a wood burning water boiler for the hot water. During this, if you weren’t already, you will become aware of the potential dangers of being in the wilderness. During my stay we had a sachs spider and a spitting cobra visit base camp. The staff are on hand 24 hours a day and are well trained in handling and capturing these animals. So, whilst the dangers are there, I felt safe at all times.
When the afternoon came, I and the other new arrivals got to go on our first drive and what an amazing first drive it was. We were to track 2 of the lionesses and the 2 cubs. It took us a while to get to the location that these lionesses were at but on the drive down we spotted white rhino, giraffe, impala, crazy guinea fowl, an endangered brown baboon spider to name but a few. Stacey (our guide and driver) answered all of our questions and started to teach us how to recognise the tracks and even what animal had produced the dung!
When we got the lionesses on a strong signal, everyone's adrenaline kicked in as we all fell silent and scanned the landscape for them. All of sudden, one of the other volunteers whispered 'she's there!' and sure enough, 10 metres ahead, one of the lionesses came out in to the clearing then followed by another. We sat quietly and stole a moment to take some photos but then they were gone and Stacey had to move quickly to off road to get our visual back. The signal told us the lionesses were on the move and quickly. Using the telemetry and all of our eyes, we continued to track the lionesses. Everything was quiet then the air was filled with the squeal of a warthog. The lionesses were hunting and had secured their meal. A bit more off roading and we got visual of the 2 lionesses again with their kill. Acacia, the mummy lioness, disappeared and Stacey told us to sit quietly and wait as she was probably off to fetch the cubs. We couldn't believe our luck when sure enough, Acacia returned with 2 of the cutest little things I've ever seen. We sat there, only about 10 metres away, for over an hour observing what most people will only ever get to see if they watch a David Attenborough documentary. It was at this moment that I realised that taking part in this programme was a privilege. It was a privilege that the landowners had opened up the opportunity for us to stay here, it was a privilege to be guided by such well trained staff, it was a privilege to share this experience with some amazing volunteers from all over the world and it was a privilege that the lionesses allowed us to spend that time with them.
I won't describe each of my drives but I will clarify that you cannot expect that each drive has a 'big 5' visual. One thing that you learn and appreciate is that you are not at a zoo, you are in the wilderness and the animals are not on demand and will grace you with their presence when they want to. Sometimes they will hide on the koppies or in thick bush where you can get so close you can hear them breathe but not see them. So whilst the programme cannot guarantee a 'big 5' visual on each drive, I can guarantee you that they will do everything they can to get the visuals needed for the research (even if this means a bumpy off roading experience) and that the Selati game reserve offers other equally stunning and beautiful wildlife which makes each drive special.
I still can't decide what my favourite moment was. Was it coming face to face with a curious hyena 5 metres ahead, was it the leopard that we spotted in Selati or the one that I saw at Kruger? Was it the rhino's or the elephants that were so protective of the calves crossing the road ahead? Was it finally seeing Mbhurri (the male lion)? The waterbuck that stared at us for too long? Learning about the vulture behaviour which led us to discover a kill? Watching the sunrise and sunset on the drives? The late night anti poaching watch and listening to the sounds of the bush? The sleep out in the river bed and being on watch for animals roaming in to camp?
There's too many more and it is impossible to say that one single thing was what made the experience. You’ll learn so much about the wildlife, about conservation, about the eco system and about the threats and challenges that the reserves and it’s animals face to ensure that the endangered animals survive.
Now for the questions that I had asked before I went -
What are the duties that you have to do?
Each day 2 of the volunteers will be responsible for the cooking of lunch and the cleaning of dishes after both lunch and the evening meal.
1 day a week, the safari vehicle is cleaned and every volunteer pitches in.
1 day a week, the volunteers will collect wood on the afternoon drive to burn for hot water.
Whilst out on drive, you will soon realise that the elephants like to knock down trees across the road so you will get involved in clearing the road. You will also get involved in building or repairing bolsters (bumps in the road) that help to control drainage on the roads in the rainy season.
Each drive had 3 jobs for the volunteers to complete, which we received training for. 1 person prepared phuza (drinks) for the drive, 1 person did the telemetry to track the signal on the animals and 1 person collected the data so that these could be entered in to the system when we got back to camp. The rest of us that weren't on rota were free to enjoy the drive, supporting the others by keeping an eye out and spotting for other wildlife.
The person who collects data on the morning drive will input the data in to the computer when they get back.
I was there during full moon which is a high risk time for poaching due to the poachers not needing additional light that gives them away. As such, the volunteers took it in turns to help with night watch. A shift at base camp where you maintained radio contact with the anti poaching teams across the reserve, listened for any unusual sounds and kept watch from the bases vantage point.
The rest of the time is yours to relax and enjoy the scenery, spend time with the staff to learn more and just clean up after yourself!
Other things you can do.
The staff will kindly help you arrange day trips if you wish to experience something out of the game reserve. You can pay for a member of staff to be your guide and the price to do this is really low. I chose to spend a day at Kruger National Park and a day doing the panoramic route. Both I can seriously recommend.
What to pack?
The LEO brochure has a full list; I would recommend taking heed of the advice. Whilst I was there, it was extremely warm during the day but on the afternoon drives, when the sun went down, it got cold. Everyone had brought jumpers, jackets etc but when you have to hold on to the truck whilst driving, your hands get icy!! It was only by accident that I had brought my gloves (they were still in my coat pocket) but these proved useful particularly for the people controlling the spotlight.
My advice? Stay for as long as you can as you will get more from your time with LEO than you could ever put in. It is a truly amazing experience and when you leave, it’s like leaving family. Everyone I was there with wants to come back and I am already in the process of organising my return. As cheesy as this sounds, LEO changed me. I am a project manager professionally and I am now looking to switch my skill set in to conservation projects.
So what are you waiting for? Volunteer, trust me, you won’t regret it!