How volunteering in South Africa changed my perspective on life and traveling

When I was 19 I decided to spend most of my savings on a two-month long journey to South Africa.

I had searched online and read good reviews about Global Vision International (GVI), but I did’nt know anyone in person who had been volunteering with GVI. I had never been outside of Europe, never traveled alone, but I booked the flight and paid for the stay and just went for it. And it was the best decision I had ever made for myself.

Straight out of high school, and still unsure about my English-speaking skills, I met up with a bunch of strangers in the airport in Johannesburg after my 16 hour long flight. Everyone else seemed nervous, and there was a dead silence except for some chatting amongst the staff. Little did we know that two months later, many of us would say tearful goodbyes too each other in that same airport.

We were a bunch of Europeans, two South-Americans, few from North America, two South-Africans and an Australian. Slowly, we began to make bonds with each other, bonds that somehow still exist today, eight years after.

At the base inside the Karongwe Private reserve, we lived and thrived as a small family. We had duties, tests and community days. Some of us continued into becoming fieldguides to continue to work with the African wildlife.

Life at the Base was not always easy, we had our challenges. My upbringing was good; we had always food in the fridge, my parents almost always employed, and we never missed much at our home. Part of the stay with GVI included a mountain phase, where we would stay in primitive huts in the Mariepskop Mountains close to Blyde River Canyon. Here our tasks were to sample small mammals from traps, identifying amphibians and otherwise explore the lush wildlife of the mountain tops. We lived without electricity for a whole week. We did’nt shower for a week. Sure, there was a flushing toilet, a gas fridge and stove and a roof over our heads. But we lived a simple life there, without contact to the outside world. And we bonded over the candlelit dinners and laughed together.

Back at the base in Karongwe, there were squabbles, like you would expect when 25 people live together in one house (15 of us slept in the same dorm!). We had our share of Malaria prophylaxis-induced dreams (one including a guy screaming in the middle of the night, shouting there were lions in the dorm!), food-shortage due to people not cooking enough for everyone, waiting in lines to go to the bathroom in the morning.

I didn’t go to Boarding school, I spent my first 18 years of life living with my parents and younger brother. Yes, I am a fortunate person to live in Denmark, and have parents that made a children’s’ savings account for my, allowing me to travel to the other side of the Globe. This volunteering experience changed my life on living with people from all over the World, making long-lasting friendships, jumping into new experiences like road-tripping and river rafting.

I also have regrets. Regretting not being flexible enough about my plans to stay longer (I was out of cash!). Life if changeable. You have to adapt to the change of course. Traveling is unforseeable, no matter how much time you spend planning beforehand. I am sure I wouldn’t be the same person, had I not spent two months in beautiful South Africa with these amazing human beings and spectacular wilderness.

You can be really lucky with the social combination of the group, where you intend to volunteer. It also depends on your own personality, if you are open-minded and easy going, it is no problem making friends with these strangers.

If you want to learn from me, have a listen now:

  • Make sure you bring the right clothes
  • Don’t turn down a good Maliaria prescription.
  • YES sleeping with earplugs does improve your life quality when living in the bush.
  • Save up enough money for two months, then double the amount and subtract 10 pizzas, 50 souvenirs and 24 milkshakes. That’s what you will be missing.
  • You have plenty of time to get home again and see your best friends’ new apartment or boyfriend. Don’t let anyone drag you home before it’s your time.
  • If you get involved with a local, make it sweet but short. Don’t linger in the halls.
  • Make sure you bring enough bug spray and a good sun hat.
  • Don’t tell your parents that you live in a house with no fence around the garden, especially not when the lions come to visit, and everyone is running around drunk in the garden close to the house.
  • Don’t tell your parents that you go on a road trip and got lost for a few hours.
  • Don’t call your parents. Send them nice emails saying how amazing the place is, and that you might run out of money soon. Please lend me some cash, dad!
  • Take pictures
  • Fall in love
  • Get drunk
  • Loose your phone
  • Take your meds
  • And remember travel insurance 😊

Yours truly,

Traveling female ornithologist

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