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South Africa 2023

For my latest trip, I knew I wanted more involvement with animals and I decided on a two-week volunteer program in in the Greater Kruger Area of South Africa with a brilliant organisation called African Impact. After my experience with discrimination in Mexico, I was anxious about travelling again and wasn’t feeling especially excited. I noticed when the plane landed in SA that I didn’t have the buzz of excitement I usually have when visiting a new country. But luckily, I had an incredible time!

I had planned to spend a week alone in Cape Town before volunteering, but unfortunately I had to forgo it due to epilepsy. I had a very bad seizure two weeks prior to leaving England and was left with slow speech, constant fatigue and memory loss which was taking a while to ease off. I was asked to reconsider even going to SA, but I was gradually healing and I didn’t want epilepsy to stop me seeing animals and being in another country. But, as is often the way of living with a disability, I had to accept that I couldn’t do everything and reluctantly cancelled my solo week in Cape Town, but I did spent one night there on arrival.

As soon as my luggage was dropped off at my hotel, I took the opportunity to explore as much of Cape Town as I could in twenty-four hours. I did a bus tour of the city and Table Mountain. I was very glad I did it and felt proud of my initiative and independence, being able to decide what I was going to do and getting around by myself. Cape Town is definitely a place for those who love the outdoors, adventure and exploring, and I hope to come back one day and hike the mountains. That evening, I was feeling anxious about the weeks ahead and the unknown, but told myself ‘whatever happens, happens’.

And so my two weeks of volunteering in the wildlife reserves of Greater Kruger Area began. We were given a weekly timetable, including free time, physical conservation, game drives and socials. Although there was a bit too much free time for me, I liked how there was a routine. Life is so unpredictable, but a structured routine can give me reassurance as to what will happen. It helped with the ED, as I knew when I could exercise and was prepared for the days I couldn’t.

As soon as I arrived at the African Impact camp, everyone was encouraged to socialise, work together and get along, while also being allowed time alone if we wanted. Everyone was very friendly and fun, and I really enjoyed the atmosphere on camp. I think the highlight of this trip for me was the people. We all shared a love of animals and wanted to help them. The majority of volunteers were young and students, but ten of us were in our thirties and above. I shared a room with 5 other women. The room was large with bunkbeds and a bathroom. Much to my relief, I got a lower bunk bed. I made very good friends with three lovely women, one Canadian, one Swiss and one British, all taking career breaks. We are keeping in touch via a WhatsApp group. Every Wednesday there was a late night party for volunteers on camp. I felt a bit cowardly for not joining, but it’s just not my scene these days. I much preferred sitting with my new Swiss friend, Nadiya, and talking about life and dreams, building a bond. I found myself socialising well at breaks and lunch. I seemed to become popular - everyone loved my colourful language!

I was very impressed with African Impact for their empathy and support. They will be going in my ‘good companies’ list. They seemed to take mental health seriously, I felt so welcome and safe, and I'm sure this is the reason I didn’t have any seizures whilst I was there. On one occasion, a tour guide allowed me to scramble up a lighthouse without a proper ladder. She said “you only live once”, and I loved this. I was given the freedom I need, and I felt accepted and not different in the slightest. I really felt listened to as well. I was asked if I would be ok with the flashing lights on night drives. I said yes, so that was fine. They trusted me. Another time, they asked me if I would be alright doing bush camping and whether it was suitable for me. I told them yes, because I’m so happy when I’m doing these things, I know I won’t have a seizure. And the host said “if you say you'll be fine, I’m happy with that.” Sure enough, I had a brilliant time and no seizure.

The landscape of SA was stunning and the night sounds were magical. Although I didn’t see as many animals as I did in Namibia and Tanzania, some of the wildlife encounters I had here were truly special.

Animals are my healing therapy; they listen, they live in the moment, they don’t judge. My main reason for booking this trip was my love of animals. A memory (herd) of elephants is a regular sighting in Africa, but I couldn’t ever tire of watching them. Seeing the elephant families dustbathing and then having a shower in the river was so touching.

The days were far more mentally tiring than physically. The hosts were very accommodating. After being introduced to the project and our responsibilities, I got nervous and confused, doubting myself on getting the hang of the GPS and various devices, and filling out animal sighting forms. But an experienced volunteer sat with me for a few ‘drives’ and I picked it all up very quickly.

We had a lot to learn about conservation strategies, terms, policies and more. We were given a few talks about the progress being made, and I especially enjoyed a talk with the Kruger Park Rangers. The most exciting part was meeting the anti-poacher dogs. I volunteered to be ‘attacked’ by a learning dog, and was given full arm protection. The canine ran towards me full speed, growling and jumped onto by arm. He bit me so hard and wouldn’t let go for a few minutes! I had a bruise afterwards, but was happy to know I was helping to train a dog attack evil poachers.

Practical work included barbed wire removal, snare removal and queen of the night (invasive cactus) removal. I treasured every moment I had on my feet and walking. We also did camera tracking, which I enjoyed every time. It involved changing the batteries of the cameras, and then looking over the photographs and recording them into sightings data. There were plenty of photographs of multiple creatures including lions, kudus, elephants, wildebeests and big cats.

I enjoyed the night game drives most, they were magical. One night we saw a pride of lions, one rolled onto her back just like a domestic cat. We also saw an Aardvark one night, and the fact they are so rarely seen (a tour guide had been there 7 years and never seen one!) made it an unforgettable experience.

By the second week, the ED voice had become louder. I found myself taking laxatives and caffeine pills, and seizure warnings began. I managed to fight the seizures off, but I was very upset. When offered lunch one day, I was too scared to eat and started sobbing. Fifteen minutes later the manager came to ask for a chat. She said she wanted to help and suggested I could walk, and they would follow by truck. A guide took me for a walk on two occasions, and I was so grateful. I walked for forty minutes and they followed by truck to keep an eye out of for animals.

The weekends were our free time and various trips were offered, or we could relax by the pool. On my first weekend, I chose to do a day trip of Kruger National Park and zip lining. To me, the park felt too commercialised. There were lions, spotted hyenas, buffalos, ostriches, mongooses, elephants, zebras, giraffes and African wild dogs, but seeing the animals surrounded by trucks in a park laden with tourists, it didn’t feel as natural as Etosha in Namibia or the Maasai Mara. Kruger is extremely large, however, and more than one day would be needed to get a true feeling for the place.

Zip lining was great fun! I was so happy, I just knew I wouldn’t have a seizure. I felt so much freedom when hanging in the air and going over a lush green canopy - I wanted to jump in, it was so beautiful.

On the second weekend, I decided to do the night bush walk. The walk was easy and flat, and the landscape was beautiful. We came across plenty of fresh tracks left by leopards and rhinos, but didn’t see any unfortunately. However, I was proud to spot a white tail in the bush and told the tour guide. We stopped for a few minutes before some African wild dogs appeared. They were curious of us and came fairly close. A wonderful experience, especially as they are very rare.

Throughout the night, we all had an hour duty to check out for wildlife. It was my duty at 2-3am to stand under the night sky and check out for predators whilst everyone was sleeping. So exciting! I loved very moment and it felt so special to be protecting everyone, listening to lions, hyenas and wild dogs nearby. It was extremely cold and I barely slept, but it was worth every minute.

Returning to Africa after my 2007 trauma in Namibia is always a challenge. Seeing the night sky, beautiful as it is, is a real trigger for me, and being able to manage it this time was my biggest achievement of the trip. The conditions were exactly the same as the night of the rape, and I had some PTSD symptoms at times. On the first night, I found myself crying a little, but then an elephant appeared! She looked into my eyes and I felt such comfort and happiness. Other times, I fought off the memories by using mindfulness. The stars were so beautiful, and I thought ‘I can’t miss this, I’m safe now’. The night sky is one of my favourite sights and I can’t let fear win.

Overall, my two weeks with African Impact was just what I needed. I was reminded that animals mean as much to me as mountains; I was in heaven watching them, helping them, bonding with them, it gave me the same ‘this is why I am alive’ feeling as when I reach a summit. Also, this trip really helped me overcome my anxiety of tours and travelling with others, restoring my faith in people after the Mexico experience. Volunteering is great fun, and although I prefer trips with more activity, this one was a 10/10 for mental health and good experiences. When I came back, I was a different person to when I left.

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