By GK Limcangco
The seed of South African travel was planted in my head when a former colleague showed me photos of her surrounded by lion cubs during a volunteer work in Johannesburg. South Africa may be known for its violent crimes and discriminatory past but beyond that external conflict is a country incredibly rich in culture, wildlife, beauty, and love.
Planning the trip down south took a lot of research. There are many volunteer programs all over South Africa, so many to choose from that filtering your searches and reading a lot of reviews is highly recommended. There are wildlife volunteer programs more specific to big cats and other animals but I personally wanted one-on-one cub interaction. The Lion Park seemed to fit the bill.
The Lion Park (www.lion-park.com) is a 500-acre tourist destination that houses four lion prides, cheetahs, hyenas, wild dogs, and over twenty other African wildlife species. They offer game drives, cheetah walks, and close encounters with African wildlife.
Participating in a volunteer program would cost $990 for a week. It is a little heavy on the wallet but accommodation, meals, and activities are included and it sure is cheaper than going on those pricey safari trips that could easily cost around $250 per day.
Booking with www.volunteersa.com will make the arrangements quick and easy. They will require a down payment to secure your spot and they will give you all the information you need via email so all you need to do is to book your flights. Unfortunately, traveling to South Africa from Vancouver would require 20 hours of travel time.
As a volunteer, the new arrivals receive a warm welcome at the park and are given a long orientation to get familiar with the park grounds and learn the daily duties. The day at the park starts at 8 a.m. taking the one-month cubs out of the nursery and to the fenced public area, preparing the meals for all the baby animals, and scooping up big cat poop. We take our breakfast to go if we have an 8:30 a.m. shift either at the giraffe station selling giraffe food, picking up tickets at the gates or assisting staff at the cub petting area. Most times, it’s easy work but sometimes it does require some sweating and heavy lifting. I spent my first official day as a volunteer raking for an hour to tidy up an area but that opportunity to just be around the animals makes all that hard work all worth it in the end.
There were eight one-month old cubs during my stay at the Lion Park. They were very playful, sometimes smelly, and they would often bite and scratch but adorable nonetheless. Anyone can easily fall in love with the other animals calling the park home as well. Purdie, the giraffe that acts like the queen of the park, prancing around doing whatever she fancies is one of the characters you will never forget. Her daughter Zoe, that is following in her diva footsteps, the rebel meerkat that figured out how to sneak out of his enclosure but also behaved enough to go back, the naughty cheetahs that managed to get out of their fenced area and attacked and ate an African antelope called an impala – so many of these gorgeous creatures will leave a permanent mark in your heart.
The volunteers also have a chance to visit a crocodile farm, elephant sanctuary, and a safari in Pilanesburg, a National Park game reserve, two hours away from Lion Park.
The volunteers stay in comfortable air-conditioned/heated tented rooms usually with four beds. Kitchen and bathroom facilities are shared with all the other volunteers. The volunteer camp is a gated area to make sure that everyone is safe just in case the predators escape their enclosure. As soon as you step out of room, you will be greeted with the glorious view of the park. You can watch zebras, springboks and other animals grazing . At night, you can hear the lions roaring and the hyenas cackling. Those nightly sounds will never make you forget where you are even before you dose off. Somehow, this makes the experience seem so authentic and even a bit dangerous.
Volunteering at Lion Park didn’t just give the volunteers the opportunity to work closely with the animals but also immersed them in the rich African culture. Developing friendships with the staff that are clearly passionate about their jobs and the animals in the park and of course creating friendships with fellow volunteers from different parts of the world is part of the experience. It was very difficult for everyone to leave new friends and furry friends but all good things must come to an end.
When the volunteer program was done, I have left a piece of myself to South Africa but I have also walked away with a lot more. I went back home to Vancouver with more than just several photos of cuddly little cubs and cute stories of animals. As an animal lover, this is my way of giving something back to the universe – my sweat, my time, and my love for all those animals. We can always make a difference even in a small way.