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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.