In 2013, I left my job for a month and fulfilled my life long dream of going to South Africa! Not only did I go by myself but I also organised to take place in a volunteer program called Shamwari Conservation Experience at Shamwari Conservation Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.
I found out about the Shamwari Conservation Reserve via a television programme showing the unlikely friendship between an orphaned elephant calf and a sheep. I then researched Shamwari and when I found out they offered a volunteer program I was estatic. Organising to take holidays from work who were very excited for me, I booked my placement and flights and was all ready to go, the hard part was waiting almost a year to go!
Thankfully the team at Shamwari Conservation Experience were very organised and sent me a list of things I needed to pack, vaccinations I needed to ensure I had, and some general information about the Reserve and the program. I must have read that booklet about 1000 times before I left and even more on the plane.
The flight was 14 hours from Sydney to Johannesburg where I stayed for one night, then the next morning I flew out to Port Elizabeth airport where the Conservation team had a shuttle waiting to take me and other volunteers from all over the world to Shamwari's volunteer lodging.
Johannesburg is a beautiful place and, as breathtaking as Lake Macquarie sunsets are, they have nothing on a South African sunset!
I found absolutely everyone to be incredibly friendly and welcoming, from airport staff all the way until we met our volunteer coordinator upon arriving at Shamwari.
We didn't start work on the first day, instead we were shown around the grounds and given our rooms and met our roommates.
When the other volunteers came home from a day out on the reserve, I met everyone who was already staying there and quickly made lifelong friends whom I still speak with today.
Our duties on the Reserve started as early as 7AM heading out in the truck and sometimes not coming home until 6PM.
Some mornings we would be predator monitoring, this means we would set out to try find one of the two lion prides, the sole female leopard, or the two cheetah brothers. Some times proved more successful than others! If we did find a predator, we stayed a comfortable distance away as to not disturb the animal and then recorded details such as if they were healthy, eating and if they were alone or with another.
One such morning, we came across a young male lion who became very interested in our jeep! The arial at the front of the truck was wobbling as we reversed away and he moved to pounce much like a domestic cat would!
Mornings at Shamwari were one of my favourite times, we would often go in search of a herd of elephants. Shamwari has many herds of elephants and each different herd's elephants are named with a certain letter at the start of their name so we could tell which herd they belonged to. Our park rangers could tell elephants apart from the smallest detail.
Every time I saw an elephant and thought it was the smallest one I'd see, another, smaller calf would appear from underneath its mothers legs and chase her and the herd. One afternoon we even saw an elephant stampede as they all trumpeted in excitement to get to a nearby waterhole.
The elephants were always very curious and often came very close to the truck whilst we were in it. Our instructions were always to sit very still and quietly and sometimes the elephants would even lift their trunks to sniff us!
One muddy morning, a large female elephant lifted her trunk and showered her back in thick mud, our truck was a little too close behind her and we all had a mud bath as well.
As well as caring for the animals we also did community work thanks to Shamwari. Every friday our rangers would take us on the truck to a nearby town so we could spend time with the children at the preschool. Even though these children didn't have all the toys and electronic things we have, they were so happy and always very excited to see us!
Early on in my month long stay, ranger Cindy took us to a local womans house. There we were honoured with an african dance from a young dance group. We got to spend the day designing and beading skirts and tops that Shamwari had provided so the girls could have a uniform. They all spent the day with us and got to pick what colours they wanted, lots of them wanted all of the colours in crazy patterns!
Another day we went to a Christmas party at the preschool and got to spend the day painting faces, reading and playing with all of the children.
Shamwari even donated presents to each and every child there, their faces lit up and I will never forget the feeling it gave me to be a part of something so kind and caring.
The children were estatic to start playing with their balls, books, mirrors and even hair clips and even as our truck pulled away they were running after us calling out and waving.
Another personal highlight of mine was when Dr Johan, Shamwari's resident vet, invited the volunteers to join him in darting and sterilising one of the big bull elephants on the reserve, his name is Jabulani. It was a beautiful day and we found Jabulani and a friend positioned perfectly under the most beautiful rainbow I'd ever seen.
Dr Johan was in the other truck and it was our trucks job to keep away the other bull elephant who was with Jabulani away so he could be safely darted with tranquiliser.
Once darted, we all were needed to push him onto his side so he could continue to breathe. The sterilisation is done via a vaccination, whilst Jabulani was tranquilised, I was able to take blood from a massive vein in his ear so his health could be monitored, it was an incredible experience.
After a month at Shamwari Conservation Experience, my stay was over far too quickly. The trip is something I would recommend to anyone, of any age, of any walk of life. The staff are all so friendly and you immediately feel like you've been a part of the team for years.
The things I saw and was able to take part in never leave my mind and I feel they help me deal with situations back at home.
If you ever want to know more about my trip or are interested in heading to Shamwari for yourself, check out their website linked at the top of my story.
Or, next time you're in the clinic, ask me about it. The first thing that happens is a huge smile as I remember it all, then I'll talk your ear off with every little detail from the best month of my entire life.