I had wanted to go to Africa ever since I can remember. I grew up listening to my Grandmother tell me stories all about living on a tobacco farm in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) after the war- the food, the animals, the people- it all fascinated me. I begged my parents to let me do to do a gap year there after I finished high school but they weren’t budging on that one- looking back on it that was probably a smart move by them but at the time I was heartbroken. My fate’s aligned when 4 years after that I sat down in a geography lecture that I wasn’t even going to go to and a little pink pamphlet was sitting on the desk in front of me. It was some information on a volunteering company and one of the locations you could go to was South Africa and lets just say no more work got done in that lecture after I saw this.
Volunteer Eco Student Abroad (VESA) offers trips to South Africa, Laos, Fiji and Ecuador where for two weeks you totally immerse yourself in the culture of your destination and help with different projects in the communities. Its not a cheap way of seeing a country but it was worth every cent for the memories you make and the people you help along the way. The whole team at VESA were wonderful from the get go and even with a last minute visa issue which saw all of us Kiwi’s having to get to the South African High Commission in Wellington just before Christmas they were there to help at a drop of a hat. We were to do our volunteer work in villages surrounding the small town of St Lucia which is about 4 hours north of Durban. Our group of volunteers was made up of eight Kiwi’s and forty-two Australians with only three boys- in my eyes these ratios were far too heavy handed in the wrong direction but it was all part of the fun. We were from all walks of life, some people came on their own and others in groups of two or three and we were all aged between eighteen and twenty-eight. Little did I know I would be leaving with forty-nine new friends because by the end of it we were all so close.
The best part of volunteering with VESA was that you get to get involved with so many different projects and really feel like you’ve made a difference in so many ways. The first project that I worked on was helping out in a crocodile centre were we collected eggs from the enclosures as most croc eggs don’t survive long enough to hatch when they are left in the nest. This was exhilarating as the mama crocs were still in the enclosures with us and the best part is that all of those eggs we collected have now hatched. The following project was working in a cheetah rehabilitation park where we set up new enclosures for some cheetahs they were getting the following week. We got asked if anyone wanted to feed the twin 6 month old cheetahs and without even thinking about it I got handed two dishes with a whole plucked chook in each of them and was told to go into the enclosure and old it up and on the count of three drop the dishes. Wow. Ive never been so scared in my entire life but it was an experience that I will never forget. We followed these conservation days up with construction. Picture this – 35 degree heat, no shade, mixing concrete with a shovel. It was hard work but all of the bricks we laid and the concrete we poured meant we were one step closer to completing a toilet block on an orphanage that VESA was building for the village. We followed construction with two days working in an orphanage and the local school. These kids were such a highlight for me – it fascinates me how kids who have nothing are so incredibly happy and grateful for any little piece of physical touch or conversation. From cuddling and feeding babies who’s parents were still in high school to climbing on the jungle gym with kids who don’t even have parents you couldn’t wipe the smile from my face even if you tried. I love talking to the high school girls about their dreams and aspirations – so many of those kids have such a bright future ahead of them. The funniest part was being asked if I was married and how many kids did I have because so many of the twenty-three year olds they know already have these things.
Not only does VESA provide a great volunteering program but in the second week you get to go on so many adventures. One day we did a full day safari – getting up and 4am and getting home around 5pm. Rhino’s are my favourite animal and getting to see them up close in their natural habitat brought full on waterworks for me. And there was something for everyone- lions, cheetahs, buffalo, warthogs, baboons, elephants, giraffes, zebras and the list goes on. Another day we learnt all about the traditional Zulu culture and about their history followed by a one on one session with an iSangoma (witchdoctor) which left more than one person overcome by emotion. We spent an afternoon cruising on the local river surrounded by hippos and crocs. We then travelled up to Swaziland where we explored their famous markets and split into groups to do caving, horse riding, quad biking or whitewater rafting. The rafting was a once in a lifetime experience followed by a once in a lifetime sunburn- whoops sorry mum.
Twenty-three of us chose to extend our trip by a week and do an add on that VESA provided called the road to Mozambique which saw us cross another country off the bucket list and explore two villages Tofo and Bilene where we stayed on the beach edge a spent days snorkelling, eating lots of fresh seafood, visiting an island where surviver was filmed which is still governed by a king and his three wives, and hiking up to turtle bay look out which is exactly what it sounds like and it was magical. It was awesome to have another week with these people I would now consider lifelong friends in a beautiful relaxing setting.
I would highly recommend VESA and their trips especially for people travelling on their own to a country they may be a bit apprehensive about visiting. The way they let you get so involved in a community is amazing. One thing to remember is the saying “This is Africa” or TIA – health and safety is just not something of importance to people there so you will experience things that you know would never be allowed back home. Embrace it, take every opportunity and enjoy every minute of it.
One of the key things that has always stuck with me form my grandmothers stories was the ways she talked about the smell of the air in Africa and I never truely understood until I stepped off that plane. Who knew that the smell of warm dirt could be so magical and something that I think of often and smile. Thank you Africa for so quickly becoming a place I hope one day I can call home and thank you VESA for giving me the opportunity to find it.