My trip continued on from Port Elizabeth along the stunning Garden Route in the direction of our elephant research and conservation project. The drive was incredible, over gorges, past towering mountains and overlooking sprawling white sand beaches. It was an incredible backdrop to the elephant project, which I had been very excited about after hearing so many great things from volunteers.
I was greeted warmly by Laurie, our volunteer co-ordinator, and Debbie the research leader. I settled into the comfortable volunteer accommodation, which is perfectly located right at the heart of the park- you can even see the elephants from the lovely outdoor terrace. The rooms are recently redecorated, all en-suite, very spacious and with wifi and computer access in the living room, dining room and kitchen.
After checking out where I was to be calling home, I received the volunteer induction, which includes watching a video about the park and its elephants. We then went to visit the elephants, and they were incredible. I had only ever been close to Asian elephants before, so I was bowled over by the size and the majesty of the African elephant. They were gently grazing their way around the vast grassy pastures, heading in the direction of the lake- which had plenty of mud around it to keep them cool. They all had a fantastic time playing in the mud, splashing in the water, and tearing leaves off the surrounding trees. To be so close to them and see their capers in their natural environment was a privilege- and an exciting one at that!
In the evening we helped to bring the elephants in to the boma where they sleep, providing them with plenty of branches for their dinner and promoting enrichment- buckets of food descend from the rafters and the elephants have to work out how to access the food. You could then watch them bed down for the night, falling asleep as they munched away, or lying down for a good snooze.
The following morning was an early one, waking up to take part in the elephants’ sunrise walk. The volunteers and the elephant carers head out to the fields where the elephants roam around in peace and quiet, munching their way through all that can be seen, whilst the sun rises slowly over the mountains behind. It was truly beautiful, and a fantastic start to the day.
Following that, I mucked in with helping with clearing up the boma- taking away the remains of the ellies’ dinner the night before, removing the dung from the boma and even helping with some dung samples- not as mucky as it sounds at all! Next we had a very hearty breakfast and got out on the field to help with the research. Monitoring the elephants’ behaviour is crucial, as it means that you get to know the African elephant very intimately. You can tell if they are happy or stressed just by how they interact (or don’t) with the rest of their herd and with people. This research is used to improve living conditions, but also for many research projects conducted through universities in South Africa and further afield. Being outside to watch the elephants for hours is beautiful, and knowing that what you are doing will help these elephants is incredibly motivating.
You get a couple of hours to relax each day, which I did relaxing with a book by the lake just down from the volunteer accommodation. It was lovely. When the evening came we once again helped to put the elephants to bed. At the end of a stay each volunteer has the opportunity to spend a night sleeping in the beautiful lodge accommodation next to the boma- so you can enjoy watching the elephants sleep from the comfort of a lovely comfortable room- a real treat! I slept like a baby, and loved hearing the musings of the ellies during the night.
This project was very moving, and the amount of access that you get to the elephants is really stimulating. They are very affectionate, and want to interact with you- and it is impossible to say no! The best part of being a volunteer with elephants is that you know that all that you do is helping towards the survival of this species, and improving the lives of all of the elephants that you have the pleasure of interacting with.