For my GoEco experience, I volunteered on the Big 5 Wildlife Reserve in the Greater Kruger Area project in South Africa. For three weeks, I stayed on a private game reserve. I have never grown so much or learned as much as I did during such a concentrated period of time.
Upon arriving, I was terrified. I was 18 years old and had never traveled anywhere alone before, let alone engaged in transcontinental travel alone. I had no idea what to expect for the next three weeks. Almost immediately, I learned that nothing could have enriched me more than traveling and volunteering, the abrupt thrust into the unknown that mandates meeting new people, understanding new cultures, trusting, collaborating, listening, and learning.
I had the best volunteer team, but everyone will tell you that, because if you find other individuals volunteering on the same project as you, you know they must share the same passions and ambitions. Every day, we went on one or two game drives through the reserve and I experienced Africa’s most raw and potent beauty.
Every day, I saw the sun rise and set on the reserve, the most dramatic sun cycle I’ve ever seen with vibrant hues of ruby, tangerine, and crimson. Every night, we drove back to the base under the most resplendent night sky, where stars were so plentiful and luminous that only an extra spotlight was needed to keep an eye out for animals.
During game drives, I learned how to track and monitor the animals’ behavior and record the information on specific data sheets to be sent to other organizations, such as ALERT for lions or Space for Elephants. Because of the data we record of these individual animals, experts can follow the progress of entire species in the region, all part of a collaborative effort to conserve endangered species. The guides are extraordinarily knowledgeable, and I learned a vast amount about the animals, the land, the language, and the people.
With unbelievable expertise, my guide would maneuver through the bush and situate us right next to the animals. We followed a pride of lions as they embarked on a hunt, watched elephants play at the waterhole, and even discovered the elusive leopard, the hardest animal to track, and sat with him in a clearing for an hour while we studied him.
Two days a week, we also did conservation projects within the park, including re-digging a dried-up waterhole for the rhinos and clearing the lion boma of invasive plant species that were killing the native plants. Although this work is labor-intensive, it is crucial and offers immediate gratification. During one morning’s work on the water hole, we witnessed a flat, brown clearing transform into a hollow perfect for the rhinos to drink, allowing them a safe waterhole free from competition from the elephants.
Three weeks in Africa was a revitalizing reminder that this world is absolutely beautiful and wildlife is so incredibly precious. The contrast from hectic, stressful, busy life in New York granted me such unusual perspective. The Big 5 Wildlife Reserve is a safe haven of this planet untouched by man, unmarred by our self-centered lifestyle. I spent hours in my mornings and afternoons driving through the most extraordinary wildlife and scenery and spent every hour in between learning from international volunteers.
Whatever volunteer project you might be considering, do it. There are opportunities and places and people that will leave us all breathless, panting under the stars, gasping in the face of a sprawling new land, desperately trying to inhale as much of the moment as possible. This world is huge. It’s ours. But this world is also in danger, and we are responsible for fixing it. A vast majority of species are endangered, biodiversity is at risk, and the natural splendor of this planet is in jeopardy. Thrust yourself into a new situation, give, learn, grow, and give some more.