If someone was to have told me prior to my departure to Africa that I was about to have, arguably, the most enhancing experience of my life I never would’ve believed them…but hey…guess they would’ve been right!!
While the idea of travelling across the globe to undertake a two-month volunteer experience in a country you know nothing about isn’t everyone’s cup of tea-there’s always those adventurous-by-nature sorts who I want to talk to now, so as corny as this might sound-listen up!
No matter what stage of your life you find yourself at, or experiences you’re going through right now, I honestly don’t think there’s any better way to grow as a person and get to know yourself as throwing yourself so completely in the deep end of an adventure you leave part of your soul there, and that’s exactly what Welgevonden did for me.
Everything about volunteering at Welgevonden for two months straight was an experience I don’t think anyone could’ve fully prepared me for – I mean, coming from a country of birds makes waking up to rhino’s outside your fence pretty unrealistic till it happens!
The program run ultimately by Greg and Pip at the reserve is for anyone who wants to work hard and play harder with a group that will more than likely become your family after a few days together!
Living at Westgate is the real volunteer deal and it wouldn’t change it for the world! While there’salways something different going on depending on the season your there, it’s a given that you’ll be doing hands-on, full conservation work around the reserve that you can be sure is actually making a difference either with the Big-5 themselves, vegetation, invertebrates, herbivores etc the list is endless.
I was fortunate enough to be around when a whole lot of DNA work (requiring testing, documenting and storing) was needed to be done for the safety of the animals on the reserve. This meant the chance to take part in the safe and proactive darting of six beautiful rhino’s and a lioness. This process meant the rhino could be tested, ear notched and have their horns micro chipped to prevent the illegal trade of horns to aid the war against poachers, of which I had been blissfully unaware till I visited Africa.
Following this the cleaning out of a booma for the lioness was definitely an experience I’m glad living on a farm trained me for (there’s only so much carcass carrying/removing one can do without growing up mucking out stalls or helping birth calves am I right?!). Being so close to animals that you’ve only ever seen in movies is something I really can’t describe to you, you’ll just have to hope you get lucky enough to help out and make a difference to their lives.
Perhaps the most classically African experience I witnessed was getting the call that a male cheetah had accidentally made his way into the managers garden while on a hunt and, was happily feasting just outside his house, so if we’d like to help remove him back into the actual reserve it would be greatly appreciated (does anyone need to be asked twice?!)
The general game drives to and from whatever work we were immersed in will forever be one of many highlights of mine. The fact that I got used to driving past herds of zebra as far as I could see, giraffes happily crossing the tracks in front of us or seeing breeding herds of elephants (more incredible in real life and in the wild than I thought possible) humbles me beyond words.
I think that’s what truly struck a chord within me about Welg, is that while there is a perimeter fence (for obvious reasons, though the reserve is well over the size of the whole of Wellington!) the animals really are in their natural habitat as they should be.
Driving past and simply being able to share the same space with a cheetah and her cubs!? You wouldn’t even dream about it! While there are certainly places out there where the animals aren’t so lucky, the animals are very much put first on this reserve with conservation a MASSIVE part of why the reserve continues to operate today (there’s an incredible video of Bradley the owner, who is actively involved and passionate about the work that is done here that is a must see).
There aren’t enough words to describe what it’s like to get your hands dirty at a place like Welg, make new friends across the world, learn things you never considered being remotely interested in or to experience something so contrasting to life in NZ it’s uncanny.
International Working Holidays couldn’t have picked a better reserve to send hard-working kiwis to for the trip and experience of a lifetime!
Blog contributed by Liana Smith from Queenstown, NZ who spent 8 weeks at the Big 5 Welgevonden Project in South Africa.
Check out Liana’s video if you’re not done finding out about her adventure.