Review: Volunteer Southern Africa Living With Big Cats Program

This post has been delayed because all the photos were stuck on a hard drive that gave up on me. I finally managed to recover a number of photos, although many are still missing. I hope you can still get a good sense of the volunteering experience – enjoy. 🙂


Earlier this year I spent three and a half weeks in South Africa. Initially, I’d planned on spending the entire time getting to know Cape Town and its surrounding areas. However, my plans quickly changed when I discovered a program from Volunteer Southern Africa called Living with Big Cats. This post will detail the day-to-day activities and accommodation. Another post will follow detailing all our excursions and animal interactions.

Located 45 minutes north of Johannesburg, the program location is surrounded by vast landscapes and diverse wildlife. You can spend as little as a week there, or as long as you’d like. There’s one element of luxury involved in working with animals and living on an exotic farm: the price. This new type of tourism costs as much or even more than spending a week in a luxury hotel and doing relaxing activities.

Pricing for 1-4 weeks of volunteering (accommodation, meals, and activities included).

I chose to two weeks at this program instead of staying at a 5-star hotel and I know without a doubt that I made the right decision. Nice resorts are enjoyable to some extent, but you can’t put a price tag on the friendships and memories you take away from a trip like this; few experiences in my life have been as rewarding. Between the people I met, the animals I interacted with, and the nature, this may be my new ideal way of traveling.

The course starts on Monday mornings, so my boyfriend and I took a 7:00am flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, where we were picked up and driven to the farm. We received a quick orientation and settled into our accommodation – picture a hostel dormitory in the middle of semi-rural Africa.

The “White House”, one of two residential buildings.

I didn’t take any photos inside since the rooms (most with 6+ beds) since they were always occupied or had belongings lying around. However, here’s the real pro tip: if you’re traveling as a couple you get a much nicer private room for the two of you. A few hours after arrival we were taken to our new room, which was a dramatic improvement.

We had our own ensuite bathroom with hot water and even had a balcony with a beautiful view.

So, Mondays at Living with Big Cats are infamously referred to as “Shit Mondays.” Why? Because that’s the day the volunteers thoroughly clean all the animal enclosures, picking up dung and leftover bones from past meals.

Unfortunately we arrived just in time for the “shit trailer.” 😉 This is arguably the single most character building activity in the program. It involves shoveling several tons of dung (that has accumulated over the past week) off a trailer. The fastest team gets to join the leaderboard and on our second Monday, we beat the record. “Make the shit trailer great again” was our team name… Good times!

Over dinner our first day, we really started socializing. Of the roughly 30 volunteers, there were people from Brazil, Singapore, Denmark, Norway, Great Britain, Germany, Australia, Argentina, all over the US, Canada, Iceland, Switzerland and more! Most of them were between 20 and 30, though Volunteer Southern Africa has apparently had kids come with their parents and a couple of 60+ year-olds. In two weeks we built a lot of close friendships; it’s hard not to bond over shoveling dung like your life depends on it!

The next day we got up at 6:50am to prepare for our pre-breakfast activities, which consisted of cleaning the horse and elephant stables. At first, standing in a small stable together with the massive horses (many were taller than me at 6’2) was intimidating, but eventually we got used to pushing the horses around to clean where needed.

My favorite stable to clean belonged to Granny, an old adorable pony who barely reached my hips.

Granny!

It sounds strange, but over the two weeks I spent there, I really grew close to the horses. They slowly got to know you and it was a lot of fun noticing how they gradually relaxed day by day. Cleaning the elephant stables was a little more intense since their melon-sized dung covered a larger surface and stuck to the ground… I’ll spare you the photos.

At 10:00am (after breakfast), we would all gather for the next round of activities. This was usually the fun time-slot. Animal work was my favorite, and I was lucky to do it four times during my two weeks volunteering. This included feeding and socializing with the three-legged cheetah Bailey…

When I rubbed his neck, he’d purr like a menacing-sounding cat.

Next, we’d visit the leopards Selati and Kodi. The former was as wild a leopard as you get in enclosures; she made sure we knew she was in charge…

Meanwhile, Kodi the teenage leopard was far more friendly and affectionate. You’ll see more in the next post just how much he loves cuddling!

The last stop of animal work was the lion workout which entailed simulating a hunt using a fake animal on a string or meat on a stick. Both produced quite the adrenaline rush since you’d be standing within six feet of a charging lioness.

As you can imagine, seeing a drooling lion leave its cage and start walking gleefully towards you is a memory for life.

After the “work” was done, we’d head up for lunch. The afternoons would usually bring more physical labour. My first highlight of this was stream cleaning, where we spent two hours wading through a stream with wild crabs and the most colorful insects I’ve ever seen. At one point, we were surrounded by ostriches, zebras, and wildebeest who curiously followed our every move.

The second highlight was weeding in a field and suddenly being approached by a hormonal ostrich.

In case you’re wondering, can tell they’re hormonal by their red shins.

As we backed away, a giraffe came from behind and trapped us, leaving us in an awkward limbo between two dangerous animals for a good 20-minutes.

Of course, there was no real danger, but it was fun nonetheless.

Afterward, it was usually time to shower and get dolled up for the night. Most evenings after dinner we’d go to the bar, which served incredibly cheap drinks and offered panoramic views of the grounds.

Bottom Line

So this is what we’d do on a day-to-day basis. As I mentioned, there will be another post soon about all the special excursions and animal interactions we enjoyed. I feel so fortunate that I could experience South Africa this way. While it’s not glitter and glamor, and obviously isn’t for everyone, I can’t imagine a better way to make friends abroad whilst learning about local culture and wildlife.

Comments

  1. This kind of ‘volunteer’ program is a scam at best. Not only are you paying for the privilege of ‘volunteering’, you are effectively displacing employment away from locals who would otherwise have done the menial tasks you did. Some African countries such as Tanzania and Uganda are cracking down on this kind of abuse and I hope that trend continues to Southern Africa as well.

  2. Daniel, I think you’ve inadvertently walked into what is becoming a controversial subject. There are a lot of ‘volunteer’ programs for wildlife rehabilitation which are really tourism lodges. Even worse there are some that act as money makers until the cubs get old enough to be hunted in a ‘canned hunting’ program. I don’t have any info about this group so am not saying whether they are legitimate or not, but no one has been able, as far as I know, to introduce captive lions into the wild and many legitimate sanctuaries will not let volunteers into an enclosure with big cats. I would encourage people to check out bloodlions.org, panthera.org or National Geographic Big Cats program. Also, Africa geographic has a good article on cub petting and voluntourism. This is an issue which I think many travelers aren’t aware of and would be great if you guys would highlight.

  3. You remember when this blog was just about miles and points deals and not things like this….good times

  4. On the other hand Sean, safari trips cost as much or more (done it for much more), and this looks alot more fun. Care and feeding of the animals does cost a fair bit, so it’s a decent trade off.
    If the place would be as open to let people review their accounting records, even better.
    Nothing wrong making a profit, just that its not obscene.

  5. Thank you for sharing – I have always admired the animals but have fear that some may just go haywire on me.

    Cannot wait for the next installment!!!!

  6. @Daniel – an interesting read, but I would not refer to this as volunteering. My impression is that this is adventurous experience; this is especially seeing as to how they charge their volunteers exorbitant prices. I do support volunteering opportunities around the globe, but rarely have I ever spent on my accommodation. Typically, the volunteers are responsible for all transportation costs, but accommodation (granted they are much modest than what you were provided) and meals are provided.

  7. @Sean, this may not be volunteering, but I wouldn’t say that he’s taking away jobs from locals. If it weren’t for rich westerners paying for a vacation/”volunteering,” where would they get the money to cover their expenses, including the salaries of local employees?

  8. @MattofCanada – That sounds suspiciously like the “justification” given for colonisation of Africa back in the day. If one didn’t civilise the natives, how would they progress after all?

  9. I for one appreciate the change of pace that Daniel’s recent reviews have offered. The controversy of this sort of “voluntourism” notwithstanding, it’s cool to see what else is out there as the chain hotel reviews can feel a little repetitive.

  10. Daniel,
    This looks like fun. But I would call it “experiential travel” not volunteerism. First, anyone who cares about the welfare of the animals should leave their care to a full time dedicated staff. Your contribution is important, but it does not replace full time employees. Second, the pricing suggests that there is a profit motive here – six bed dormitories and meals in semi-rural Africa should never cost the listed prices. Menial labor in South Africa remains quite cheap, and no organization should need to recruit Northern Hemisphere volunteers to perform tasks that can be learned in a week to achieve its mission.

    I wish you had informed yourself prospectively whether you were going to one of South Africa’s “lion mills”. These enterprises pass themselves off to tourists as a fantastic place to see lion cubs and adolescent lions in enclosures. Feeding grown up lions gets expensive, so when these captive lions get too big, they are shipped to pseudo game parks for Northern Hemisphere types to enjoy a Teddy Roosevelt style hunting experience. I am not as revolted as some that this happens, but I do think the people who think they have “hunted” a lion in the “wild” are either idiots or douchebags. But given the existence of this shady type of business, I wish you knew in advance what you might have been supporting.

    But I am pleased to see some content beyond Lucky’s typical reviews of upscale chain hotels. And, perhaps, he needs to do some of these things before he gets too old, himself.

  11. @OneOfTheNatives, so without the westerners you think African countries will not progress, oh well, if believing that makes you feel good then by all means

    In other news, is this blog mostly written by gay guys? just wondering cos with the exception of Travis looks like every other person is

  12. @Ken – yes, it is written by gay guys, not that it should matter. Unless, of course you find a laminated card sitting on your pillow at a hotel in Texas. That should send shock waves throughout the tourism industry. So I guess that rimming is ok, but sleeping on a pillow that once touched a laminated card is not. Ahhh, the hypocrisy! But let’s not hate, because some people are super-easily offended over the most trivial of matters 🙂

  13. It’s refreshing to read an article like this on OMAAT – thanks for sharing! I especially liked the part where the cheetah would jump with joy towards the team leader 😉

  14. @Sean, I wasn’t expecting it to go that far! My comment refers only to this specific program, not the country/continent in general. If people like Daniel didn’t visit, this program/hotel/sanctuary wouldn’t exist, so he’s not taking a South African’s job. If he were to volunteer building houses, then he would be taking a job from a local, since that’s something they would otherwise hire a local to do.

  15. Please do the research before any voluntourism excursion, especially those involving animals.

    Usually, it’s not a good idea.

  16. I am surprised Daniel would fall for this – meaning a form of tourism disguised under “volunteer program”. Can’t think of this being so naive or so stupid. I am willing to call it naive even though for a grown up with education, should not be so naive.

    Most volunteering programs around the group would not charge this kind of prices.

    It is no different than a traditional “private reserve” safari, just added the “adventurous” elements to it – by having close up to the big cats not just the usual petting of the cubs, but the feeding and false “training”.

    Really, you are being had, not just unknowingly participating in some very dubious practice to attract tourist dollars, but spread your false sense of such “programs” thru the blog.

    Luckily, most readers seem to know a lot better than you.

    Next time before you sign up for anything, do some serious homework first!

    Finally, Cape Town and its immediate surroundings do not worth 2 weeks time.

  17. “you can’t put a price tag on the friendships and memories you take away from a trip like this”

    You’re absolutely right, Daniel. I spent a month in Nepal last summer and could have easily stayed at the Hyatt Regency or some other local resort, but it would have meant that I would not have met the people that I did meet there, whom I now consider to be some of my closest friends. I still talk to them regularly and a few of us from within the group decided converge on Amsterdam earlier this month so that we could see each other again. That’s worth more to me than any number of massages and fine dining experiences I could have gotten at a resort.

  18. Being held captive actually does great harm to these animals. Taming wild animals has been shown to be cruel and harmful. These kinds of programs not only take all your money, they also drain the health, dignity, and happiness from all the “wild” animals involved.

  19. “I am not as revolted as some that this happens, but I do think the people who think they have “hunted” a lion in the “wild” are either idiots or douchebags.”

    The brothers Trump come to mind.

  20. “If he were to volunteer building houses, then he would be taking a job from a local, since that’s something they would otherwise hire a local to do.”

    Matt, honestly, it’s more likely that the house wouldn’t be built at all.

    Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are *not* poaching jobs from locals when they volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.

  21. @Ken – Im glad someone finally said it haha. Im also very surprised that everyone is gay on this blog…except for Travis lol.

    But anyway, I would never do this volunteer clean up after animals for two whole weeks kinda thing but I enjoy reading your reviews/posts, Daniel! Great change of pace to the blog.

  22. I’m as surprised as everyone else, to be one of the top leading travel blogs in this world – and yet fall for this tourist-scam where you have to pay to take care of animals that others earn money on. I don’t know if I’m mostly disappointed, embarrassed, or just angry on behalf of the animals that are exploited.

  23. Please educate yourself on places like this before participating and advertising it on the blog. Most places like this are in it for the money and the animals are the ones that suffer. No one should be in close quarters with a wild animal. Usually means they have been “trained” (abused) into being tame.

  24. Based on experience as a Thai.
    There are a lot of business doing this “mock volunteering” for foreigner especially on Thai Elephant.
    While the visitor might views it as volunteering. The reality is that it’s purely business and in some cases, it is the only reason they keep those animals in the facility rather than releasing them into the wild. I am sure that it’s the same case in Africa. Please re-title it as Wildlife Caring Experience or something that is not volunteering.

  25. I wouldn’t judge the offer or Daniel as hard as some of you do. If you look at the South African market, the prices for full service safari or game lodges are extremely high. They easily charge around USD 10000 for a week. So what can you do if you want to experience some animals without paying that amount of money?

    Well, the program reviewed here seems to offer a nice experience for those who are happy to do some work – for roughly 90% less than a game lodge. I think the offer is quite reasonable, at least if you qualify for the en suite room for couples. I’m not disturbed by the word “volunteering”, because I think it makes it clear that you have to do some work – with “wildlife experience” or something similar you might end up with a lot of customers who are unwilling to do some work.

    For those not willing to some work and on a limited budget, another option is to go to Kruger Park and do some of the official activities, while staying outside the park in a hotel. This is also fine, although there are some reports of people not seeing many animals (not my experience, though).

    Bottom line, for someone like Daniel who travels on a limited budget and is happy to do some hands on work, I think this is a reasonable alternative.

  26. @Andy – you are totally missing the aspect of animal welfare. A wild animal should always be in the wild. Breeding and raising captive cats for tourism is not okay. When you go on a safari, you look at wild animals, I would gladly pay a lot more for that. Compare it to going to SeaWorld and seeing the poor whales that are stuck in gold-fish bowls, versus going for a real whale safari watching whales in the wild. I’ll never pay to see animals in captivity, cause they are better experienced and supported in the wild. It is not a human right to HAVE to see an orca or a lion, but if you can afford to see them in the wild than that is great.

  27. CANNED HUNTING facility – check
    Another tourist fooled – check
    More rare & majestic animals slaughtered for stupid ignorant evil retarded fun – check

    Saying that you didn’t know is not enough. Cecil the lion’s story was all over the press not very long ago, so for someone doing regular online blogging and saying they don’t know about these shady practices – well that’s washing your hands off of this very serious issue OR trying to wash your hands off this issue.

  28. “I am surprised Daniel would fall for this”

    I’m not.

    Then again, unlike some of the other people posting on here, Daniel does seem to be more focused of pimping his Youtube page more than anything.

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