Volunteer diary – Working on a South African reserve

Guest blogger James Bailey shares his diary of a volunteering project in Lapolosa Wilderness (with a trip to Kruger National Park)

On the spur of a moment I booked a two week adventure to volunteer in the African bush. This meant I could realise my lifelong dream of working on a game reserve. These are a few of my thoughts and highlights from the diary I kept during my first week spent at Lapolosa Wilderness.

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Sunday 4th November 2012: A hotel in Johannesburg

I hope they took on board my comments about dietary requirements – ‘all I expect is the opportunity to have a few cold beers after a long hot day in the field and I’m not particularly fussed by beans’.

I’m looking forward to getting my hands dirty – building bomas, pulling up old wire and my favourite, walking the fence line. However, I’m most excited by the fact that they tell you to bring a sheath knife. But all I have is a Leatherman which feels a tad inadequate. Not quite Croc’ Dundee standards.

Monday 5th November: Lapolosa Wilderness

Buffulo (c) James BaileyArriving at Lapolosa I was blown away by the scale.The very fact that it is 17km from the main gate to the camp shows how immense this place is at 20,000 hectares. At one point when we crossed the brow of a hill all we could see around us was the reserve – pretty impressive as it includes a mountain range.

My chalet makes the most of the view, whether you’re in bed, on the toilet or taking an outdoor shower. There’s no doubt this way of life is very special.

I joined others at the volunteer house where our guide gave us a good overview of what to expect from our stay. Embarrassingly it took me ten minutes to find my way home. Stumbling about the bush in the dark I must have looked like a complete idiot to the local fauna. Luckily Lapolosa is not a ‘Big Five’ reserve…

Tuesday 6th November

A day of hard graft spent taking down rusty barbed wire fences left over from the cattle ranch days. The job was tough: lots of cuts and blisters along with ripped gloves and clothing, but worthwhile. It’s a tangible and satisfying thing to clean up the reserve for the forthcoming animal introductions.

I discovered that head torches and moths do not go together. I spent the evening pointing a second torch away to attract said moths from my face.

Wednesday 7th NovemberLapolosa Wilderness (c) James Bailey

Today we got to break all the rules; we got to set things on fire! As part of the reserve’s fire management plan we had to burn off two blocks which totalled about six square kilometres. Quite surreal; if you weren’t lighting it, you were putting it out. I must have lit about 1.5km of linear bush. Whilst that was fun it wasn’t nearly as satisfying as beating out the flames that were coming back towards the fire break.

With the whole block contained and about to burn itself out you had something very tangible to be proud of. This was made that bit better by the thunderstorm rolling in to wash all the nutrients back into the soil.

Thursday 8th November: Kruger National Park

We were up at 03.40 for our three-day trip to Kruger. The weather was terrible but it didn’t stop us spotting a good haul of game on our two drives – buffalo, white rhino, steenbok, klipsringer, African hoopoe, pied kingfisher, giraffe, leopard tortoise and elephants.

The elephants came to our lunch stop after pitching our tents. There’s a whole commercial area of curio shops and restaurants overlooking the river where a herd of 14 elephants, including young, were feeding. Walt Disney himself couldn’t have done a better job.

Friday 9th November

Baboon in South Africa (c) James BaileyJust as it turned 04.45 my alarm went off and like clockwork it started to rain again. The drive made up for the early awakening, highlights were leopard, hippo, spoonbill, cheetah, banded mongoose, sable, spotted hyena, lots of elephants, hamerkop, side striped jackal and a bedraggled honey badger. This cost me a bottle of brandy for the guide as that was my number one wish – well, after wild dogs but that wasn’t going to happen…

The tracking of animals in Kruger has met with the information age with BBM, Facebook and Twitter all being used to report sightings. However, to get the best sightings you still have to do a shed load of driving, be in the right place at the right time and know animal behaviour. Our guides did not let us down.

The early mornings are a killer but it does mean that your holiday lasts much longer.

Saturday 10th November

Pretty shattered after the Kruger trip – seeing the ‘Big Five’ is exhausting work – a lioness was spotted on our final drive. Spending time on Lapolosa and at Kruger has reinforced my desire for an outdoor life away from the hustle and bustle of city life – another dream…

Sunday 11th November

Late up this morning as it was our day off, it wasn’t a lazy day though! We went on a long hike in the blazing sun across the property for a cooling swim at Enkosini Falls. A great way to finish my time in the Mpumalanga Province. Tomorrow I head off to Siyafunda Conservation Initiative on the Makalali Game Reserve.

(Part 2 of James’ African game adventure coming soon…)

James’ Lapolosa Wilderness project trip was booked via Enkosini, a registered South African trust and a non-profit conservation project of The Lion Foundation. Enkosini works locally and internationally to encourage and promote a positive attitude towards wildlife and to insitute conservation-based employment. They believe that education and collaboration with the local community are keys to conservation.

For booking and further details of all their volunteering projects, visit www.enkosini.com (E: info@enkosini.com, T: +1.206.604.2664)

James Bailey


About the author: A Yorkshireman who lives in London but pines for Africa. Zoo advocate with habitat protection the ultimate, and don’t get me started on climate change nay sayers. Lets off steam through running, cricket and rugby.

Follow James on Twitter via @jhcbailey


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