Volunteering with animals in South Africa – and in particular lions/elephants/big cats – was something that I always wanted to do. It was one of those dreams you think will never actually come to fruition and you just day dream about whilst bored at home. But after I finished my degree at university, I started to piece together things in my head, and establish that – well if I want to go and do it, maybe I should just go and do it!
So being the nutty animal lover that I am, I did some (very extensive!) research on where I could volunteer, I made entirely sure that I would not be visiting and contributing to a place that breeds its animals for profits or that is linked to anything horrific like canned hunting. I spent hours pouring over different companies and different game lodges/reserves etc until I found the “Living With Big Cats” program through Amanzi Travel (Volunteer Southern Africa’s UK partner). The program was based at Glen Afric Country Lodge and sounded amazing and exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do. So after researching some more into the lodge itself and becoming satisfied that it wasn’t linked to anything unethical, I booked my trip!
So on August 16th 2015 I headed to Heathrow ready for the 11 hour flight to Johannesburg airport, South Africa. I was going to be volunteering for four weeks and then flying on to Cape Town to cage dive with great white sharks afterwards! It was the trip of a lifetime for me, and it was also two firsts: my very first solo trip and the furthest from home I had ever been!
Glen Afric itself is a country lodge located in Broederstroom South Africa that has countless African and other animals on the huge property. You may recognise it from the UK TV show ‘Wild At Heart’ as it is where the show was set and filmed!
All of the animals on the property were either rescued from unsavoury places or bought by Glen Afric owners from film and television companies to prevent them being sold illegally on the black market after their ‘acting’ careers were over. All of the animals will be living out the remainder of their lives in Glen Afric, they will NEVER be sold on to other people or places, especially not for something horrific like canned hunting. Some of the animals at Glen Afric are free-roaming in the reserve such as the giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and hippos. The other animals are all captive-bred animals who are now semi-used to human contact due to their various backgrounds, so for obvious reasons they cannot be released into the wild. But Glen Afric has great big enclosures for each animal, they get fed well with the right kind of food and nutrients and they get plenty of exercise around the huge 750 hectare farm as well as bundles of love!
A typical day at Glen Afric would begin by waking up around 7:30am and getting ready for the day ahead. If you had signed up to do an elephant walk, you would wake up especially early to go on a lovely walk with the elephants and their handlers across the whole of Glen Afric before the day begins! We would then meet at 8am on the volunteer couches in ‘Quarantine’ – which is what the volunteer quarters was referred to as – to be told whether we were cleaning out the elephant house, the cow and bull pens or the horse stables. These three involved a lot of poo shovelling; not the best way to start a morning, but it was a good way to warm up, seeing as it was winter in South Africa the mornings could be a bit chilly (yes, even in Africa!). After we had done this we would head up the hill to breakfast, which was usually toast and cereal, although on some days we would have bacon and eggs too! Then it was back down the hill to meet on the couches again to be briefed on what we would be doing for the rest of the day.
On every Monday all volunteers would be split into four teams, each named after one of the animals on the property. So we would be told by group the activity we would be doing – sometimes it would be fun, animal interaction things like lion walks, game drives, taking the young lionesses to the exercise camps or interacting with Bailey the cheetah (only volunteers can interact with the animals, this is not available to the general public). Other times it would be maintenance tasks like painting and building enclosures, fixing fences, building enrichment apparatus for the animals, scouring the property for snares which would have been set up by poachers and locals (to try and catch an animal for food or parts) and picking out milk weeds which are poisonous to baby animals etc.
Mondays were the least enjoyable day, as they were what everyone called ‘shit Mondays’ and involved cleaning ALL of the animal enclosures of poo and the bones from their meat. We would move from enclosure to enclosure cleaning them out, oh what fun times! And then once all of the poo and bones were cleaned up, we would all head to ‘shit trailer’ which was exactly what it sounds like – a big trailer of animal shit. The team leaders do try and make it ‘fun’ though, as they make it into a competition on how quick volunteers can empty the shit trailer, trying to beat previous volunteer records!
On days other than Monday, we would tend to do one activity after breakfast, then head up the hill (again!) for lunch and have a little chill time. Then we would meet back on the volunteer couches after lunch and get told what our afternoon task would be, then head off to do that. On Mondays and Fridays at the end of the work day we would go around the property feeding all of the animals. This would entail throwing large slabs of horse meat over the enclosure fences for the bigger animals, and placing bowls full of horse meat into enclosures for the cubs and smaller animals. The cubs get fed every day because they are growing and need all of the extra nutrients that is added to their meat to keep them healthy. The other animals are only fed twice a week to keep their eating frequencies as close to what they would be in the wild. After all of this is done volunteers are left to chill out and go up the hill for the third and final time of the day for dinner!
After dinner we would often head to the bar and terrace area at the main lodge, where we would all have a drink and hang out together playing games and being silly. Other times we would head back down to Quarantine and chill out on the couches by the fire playing more games or watching a film in the volunteer living area. Sometimes we also had a South African braai (barbecue) at the bomer in Glen Afric, which is where they hold all of their weddings and other events as it is a really pretty area. Whilst here we would get some meat to cook ourselves and eat it all together on a long table with some drinks, followed by a little sing and dance around the fire, with the occasional game of limbo and jump rope!
There is also a very sad story surrounding Glen Afric. There was once a beloved white rhino living on the property called Isabella. She was so tragically poached in 2014 during the night, a handful of poachers snuck onto the premises and horribly killed her just for something as silly as keratin. Poaching is still a huge problem in South Africa as rhino horn can be sold for such a lot of money. Every month a memorial is held at Isabella’s memorial site in Glen Afric, and all volunteers place a flower and a candle there in memory of the beautiful Isabella. One day whilst I was volunteering there, it was the one year anniversary of Isabella’s death and we all headed to the local mall decked out in Isabella t shirts with signs and placards, protesting rhino poaching and trying to raise money for rhino charities by selling bracelets and t shirts for the cause. We managed to raise quite a lot of money and had a lot of fun doing so!
So with all of that said, that would be a typical day – with a few new activities thrown in – in the life of a Glen Afric volunteer! Below are some photos from the various activities we participated in during typical days! Elephant walks
One particularly exciting day, a few of us were asked to stay behind when the others went to clean out the animal enclosures in the morning. We were told that two schools were coming to visit Glen Afric and asked if we could be the guides to show them around the property. I was super excited about this as I love talking about all of the animals we had there and sharing the knowledge I had learnt whilst volunteering there. So we met the school children at the bomer, and began our tours around the property. We had not prepared at all as it was sprung on us on the day, but seeing as we were quite confident in what we had been told whilst volunteering there the day was a success! The children and the teachers had a great time interacting with the elephants and seeing all of the various animals we have there. We also kept them entertained by having a game of bokdrol spoeg, which is Afrikaans for shit spitting! Yes, whilst at Glen Afric we learnt that this is an actual sport in South Africa, they will pick up small balls of Giraffe or Impala poo, place it into their mouths and see who can spit it the furthest. The team leaders got us volunteers to do it once whilst on a task of finding snares around the property. I did not partake, as I wasn’t so keen! But the South African kids and teachers were all keen on having a little contest of this, so I set it up and they all got stuck in!
Every week at Glen Afric there would be a new excursion or activity offered to volunteers to go and do, but I have written about those in separate posts you can read here.
Although I absolutely treasure my time at Glen Afric, nowhere is perfect and Glen Afric is ultimately a profit-making lodge so admittedly there were still a couple of things that I didn’t agree with regarding the animals – nothing as horrific as canned hunting or breeding etc, but still a few things I wish they would stop. For example one day they had red bull bikers filming on the property, and they hearded the free-roaming animals, as well as the three resident elephants, up underneath the huge bike ramps and had the bikers ride over them, which obviously terrified the animals as it was so noisy and must be so frightening for them seeing as they don’t understand what is happening. Obviously none of them were physically hurt, but a lot of us volunteers made it clear that we did not agree with this at all and thought it was horrible to put them through it, which a lot of the staff agreed with us – this was the owners decision not the general staff’s decision.
All in all my time at Glen Afric was absolutely wonderful. The animals of course were the main reason I went and they gave me such a beautiful experience. But the people I met there and the friends that I made during that time honestly made the experience what it was. I now have life long friends from all over the world and precious memories that I can treasure forever thanks to the enriching program that is Living With Big Cats.