In May this year I have swapped my office chair for wellies, waterproofs and rubber gloves. As strange as it may seem, it was a voluntary and very much welcomed change. I left my job and decided to go to South Africa. To work with elephants. Nothing less. The decision was actually made in December last year when I realized I needed to get away from my current job. The logical thought followed – why not do something fun before finding a new job? Why not indeed? A quick Google search later I landed on Oyster Worldwide website. The rest is a history.
Oyster Worldwide provided all the information, recommended flight options and travel insurance company. I myself didn’t have to do much apart from sorting out vaccinations and getting the currency. Most importantly they gave me a list of suggested items to take with me. Always being a bit too careful I followed it to a dot and I must admit I was grateful for it. Items like scarf, gloves and hat may have looked ridiculous in connection to images of Africa but May in South Africa can be pretty cold (as the winter season starts) and as it showed later it was.
So following all instructions as given by OW, with a rucksack full of stuff varying from rubber boots, working gloves, waterproofs and sunscreen, I left the UK on a plane from Heathrow to Johannesburg on 18th May. From Johannesburg a short flight continued to George where I was met by volunteer coordinator, Cindi.
The park is located between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, in Western Cape, South Africa (approx. 90 minutes drive from George). I was very much excited and slightly scared. I didn’t really know what to expect so I kept my mind open and took things as they came. Meeting with other people (9 of us arrived on that day), meeting the staff, getting used to a new environment, deciding what food to buy for the next four days… and finally meeting the elephants as well. What an exhausting afternoon. But all the staff – the volunteers in charge of the project and the staff– were very friendly and nice, always helpful and approachable. A very thorough induction was spread over the next two days – health and safety, how to behave in the field/boma, how to approach (or don’t approach) the ellies and of course how to distinguish each elephant. During my stay there were 18 elephants and as crazy as it sounds I was able to recognize each one within a week.
Working as a volunteer involved manual work around the park and the boma/camp (inside and outside enclosures) and research which was mainly collecting data about the ellies’ behaviour in the field or in the boma. Evening, night and early morning shifts were sometimes scheduled and although these may sound tedious, they were my favourite ones as these were the times when you could observe the ellies without any outside interference, these were the times you could see them for what they were, the elephants only. No tourists around, no guides, nobody else… Depending on the length of your stay, different types of observations are introduced to you, the longer you stay the more interesting methods you learn and you get the chance to spend more time with the ellies.
Of course the elephants were the main reason why I decided for this project and I was anxious to meet them. Mostly because they are big animals and as we were constantly reminded they were all wild and therefore unpredictable.
I fell in love straight away. I mean, I was already pretty fond of elephants generally, but here it was more personal. You get to touch them, you get to stand very close them, feed them and you spend hours watching them. It didn’t take long before I was totally smitten.
There were three herds in the park during my stay, only one of them hands-on, Sally’s herd. The other two herds we could only observe from behind the fence and therefore Sally’s herd was the one we spent working the most time with. Seven ellies in total and each of them had their own personality and their own quirks. Discovering them was an amazing and sometimes very entertaining journey.
The time I spent in the fields watching was probably the most happiest time of the last few years in my life and the images still keep popping up in my head. The ellies racing (no exaggeration there) to the feeding barrier when they heard the tourists coming. The ellies stealing food from each other. The ellies swimming in the lake or having a mud bath. The ellies peacefully grazing in the fields. The ellies throwing branches of a tree on their backs and Sally especially carrying a piece on her head proudly as if it was the latest fashion accessory. The ellies playing (in some cases the play looked more like a fight), trunks intertwined, ears flapping. But the most incredible experience for me was watching them sleeping, lying down inside the boma. The night time inside the boma was the most peaceful and heart warming time I had the privilege to be a part of. The smell of sawdust, dimmed lights, elephants spread around the length and width of the boma, contentedly snoozing, the quietness only occasionally interrupted by random farting and Sally’s snoring.
When the time came to say good-bye I was heart-broken. It’s quite amazing how quickly you start to feel like you belong there and how quickly these big loving animals become part of your world.
A few words about the weather… May is a tricky month as you can experience anything. Although the first two weeks were pretty dry and fairly warm (some people even went to the beach and swam in the sea!), the second half of my stay (that was actually June) was very cold and we even had a few frosty mornings. Having said that, the cold evenings usually meant unforgettable sun rises the next morning and after the rain cleared the clouds the clear night skies offered astonishingly beautiful star views.
Instead of getting into a complicated conclusion I simply say: Do it. If you can and you are interested in animals, go there and experience it on your own. I hope I will be able to go back; feel the elephant skin and look into the wise elephant eye again.
For more information about volunteering with elephants, see Oyster Worldwide’s website here