When you think of South Africa (ZA) you think of their deserts, sub-tropical forests, wetlands, amazing mountains, and, of course, the bush. But Africa is way more than its majestic landscapes. It is known as the Motherland — a place where humans began their 100,000+ year long evolutionary journey.
While, like any country, parts of Africa are more populated than others, the South African bush remains largely untouched by overpopulation and the insatiable need to replace nature with retail establishments. If you, like us, seek to trade the hustle of the daily grind for enlightenment and wonder in a pristine natural environment, you’ll find, as we did, that the Motherland is uniquely qualified to quench any spiritual appetite.
So, with our own souls in need of some replenishment, and a bit of wanderlust to nudge us out of the ever-overwhelming suburbia, we decided to take our own adventure into the heart of the South African bush with two goals: live as sustainably as possible and learn about the conservation projects working to preserve humankind’s first home.
Grab your passport, pack your hiking boots, and catch a direct flight into Johannesburg with South African Airways, a member of Star Alliance. Next, hop on a quick puddle jumper into the much smaller Air Force Base Hoedspruit (HDS), which, yes, offers WiFi so you can send those last texts and emails before going off the grid, as well as rental car services for those interested in chauffeuring themselves around the amazing locale. As you touch down in the Motherland, feel your urban worries shed away and let your soul breathe in the budding adventure. Take in the vast landscapes, keep your eyes peeled for giraffes and baboons frolicking in the bush, and let your heart bask in all that is nature’s normal.
Now, finding an organization that fits your wants and needs can be difficult, but don’t let your head spin by poring over google hits. Instead, contact Volunteers in Africa Beware, a Facebook page dedicated to ethical African travel companies. This page is full of extensive information regarding all of the organizations in Africa. It’s dubbed, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly List” and explains where different organizations’ donation money goes, and what they support (e.g. petting zoos, canned hunts, etc.). It’s a saving grace, and how we found our perfect match: The Siyafunda Conservation, located in The Greater Makalali Reserve in South Africa.
Siyafunda is committed to being the premier ecotourism destination with the best wildlife monitoring projects. They specialize in research and conservation, and are aptly named, as “Siyafunda”, in Zulu, means “To learn to teach”. People from all over the world flock here to volunteer and learn about the country’s great landscape, its fauna, the animals that call it home, and how to help protect it. We decided to join them.
There are two options for accommodations here. If you’re looking for a more “at home” experience, their Main Camp is for you. You’ll enjoy the luxury of a hot shower and private bathroom, an amazing pool alongside African game, power outlets to keep charged during your stay, and WiFi to stay connected.
If a more intimate-with-nature experience is what you’re after, then consider Bush Camp (formerly known as the Endangered Species Project) as we did. You’ll be fully immersed in the wild, with the stars above you and a tent to call home. Wander inside and you’ll find a rustic space partitioned into two separate rooms as well as a common area in front of the tent. Cook breakfast and wake up to the smell of brewed coffee in the morning with the help of a propane powered grill top, and rinse yourself off in the pulley-system shower after a long day in the bush.
Thirsty? Pop over to the pump that draws water from the ground (which, yes, is 100% safe to drink, and, much to our enjoyment, quite delicious), or reach into one of the two refrigerators for a cold beverage — a nice modern perk!
A typical day goes something like this: up and at ‘em early, like the 5:30 am kind of early, to venture off on a bush walk with the rest of the commune. Not a morning person? You’ll change your tune once you step outside, take in the scent of the morning, and the expansive beauty all around you. With the guidance of experienced rangers, you’ll learn how to track different species via footprints, markings on trees, and yes, of course, dong.
Six hours later, you’re back at camp, and ready to chow down. Prepare a lunch on that grill top and chat with other volunteers about the beauty you encountered that morning — the wildlife you stumbled upon; that leopard you spotted resting in a tree; those two giraffes helping themselves to a canopy top lunch.
After cleaning up, enjoy some downtime (we highly suggest taking advantage of that shower now!) Then, at “half 15” (3:30 pm for us here in the States) take a “game drive”, which is just another way to say “go on safari” with your guides.
The Makalali area is known for sightings of the “Big 5” (lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalo) and on any particular drive you can see many if not all. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for good firewood to use for the night ahead. Your fellow volunteers will thank you!
A great deal of our decision to volunteer with Siyafunda was to experience complete isolation in nature. At the same time, as the saying goes… it takes a village.
Surviving in the bush is a group effort, and you’ll be supported by your fellow volunteers through shared tasks. Contribute each day either by cooking, cleaning, or keeping the generator going for the water supply. You’ll also be responsible for recording data, like location (GPS), sex, and stomach content index for a specific animal (or group of animals) during your bush walks. After dinner, be sure to log the data into a computer, which is imperative to the success of Siyafunda’s monitoring and conservation program, then kick back and take in the sounds of the bush as it (and you) fall asleep.
Everyday, you learn more about the environment, the wildlife, and even plant and insect relationships. Every night, peace finds you a little more. You forget about the small stuff you used to sweat and embrace the simple things, like how your soul awakened the moment you and that lion acknowledged each other for what you really are: two animals in the wild.
We fell hard for one of the “Big 5” — rhinos, so we volunteered with The Rhino Protection Trust, in association with Siyafunda Conservation. They have one simple mission; “to combat rhino poaching within the independent game reserves of South Africa”. We established support systems for these spectacular animals, raised awareness, and funded darting initiatives to help anti-poaching units monitor the rhino population. Rhinos aren’t your thing? No worries! Siyafunda offers a wide variety of conservation and sustainability projects.
Engage with majestic elephants by lending a hand to their elephant monitoring program. Study the habitats and behaviors of these endangered, leathery beauties. Feel the air vibrate with every trumpet-blast, let it ring in your soul, reminding you that this land is full of life that you are helping to keep safe right now.
If you want to awaken your inner Simba, look no further than the lion monitoring program. You can jump right into the circle of life in the Greater Makalali by dabbling with additional programs geared toward monitoring hyenas, leopards, birds, raptors, and game like zebra and impala. Test your stealthy prowess with hide monitoring (you know, go sit up in a hideout built into a tree to study the animals), pump your muscles with habitat work, and know that you are doing something remarkable for the Motherland.
We set out to experience enlightenment in nature and have a positive impact at the same time. Through immersion in the South African bush with the help of the people at Siyafunda Conservation, we succeeded. Siyafunda opened their arms and taught us about the land that humankind has forgotten to call “home”, and the brilliant animals that still do. Our way of keeping the bush alive is through awareness and marketing. Protecting the Motherland is not easy, but everyday, someone is taking their first adventure into the bush. That person could be you, tying your hiking boots tight as the sun rises, ready to try.
Edited by Lauren Barnett | Photos by Sean Cervone