Case study

Volunteer project in South Africa — Keelie Renwick

Keelie took a gap year before starting university - volunteering for nature conservation work in South Africa with BUNAC

What degree course will you be studying, and where?

I'll be studying the BA Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick.

What gap year project did you take part in and how long did it last?

I travelled to South Africa on BUNAC's Volunteer Kruger National Park programme, where I took part in nature conservation work in the Balule game reserve.

I arrived in January 2017 and volunteered for three months, before travelling around the rest of the country until July.

How did you choose your gap year and this project?

I wanted to do a volunteer project in South Africa, as I've a keen interest in volunteering, and have previous experience of volunteer work, which I absolutely loved. When I came across the trip to Balule, I was attracted to the opportunity to work with nature at its wildest.

I spent time researching various projects, but this one not only gave you the opportunity to work with experienced guides and rangers, you can witness the benefits of your work while you're out there, which was important to me.

How did you fund your gap year?

I worked as a waitress and barista in a local café in my home town, saving as much as possible to fund my travels.

Tell us about the project and what it involved.

We usually woke up before sunrise to start the day with a 'bird point count' - where you drive to different reserve locations and name all the birds you hear and see, recording the data to spot trends in the various bird species and distribution.

This was often followed by driving along a 10km transect, spotting game and identifying it by its name, sex, condition and location.

After this, we'd go back to camp, and enjoy some free time. Swimming in the pool offered a breath-taking view overlooking the Olifants River. In the afternoon, we headed out to do reserve maintenance, or collect camera trap data. We looked for patterns in the distribution of game, and movement of predators, particularly of the leopard.

Evenings usually began with a sunset drive to Sopie's Hoogte ('sipping heights' in Afrikaans), followed by a 'braai' (BBQ) at camp. Picture yourself sitting under the Milky Way, in the heart of the African lowveld around a fire, with a group of strangers from around the world, who'll become lifelong friends. You can hear the nightjars calling, and the lions roaring, as the nocturnal animals of the bush awaken around you.

The guides will share their tales of nature at its best, or cruellest. The fire glows bright under the open night sky, while the sizzle of 'boerewors' (traditional Afrikaans cuisine, similar to a beef sausage) accompanies the cry of the jackals. The experience of being in the heart of the African bush is one you can't find anywhere else in the world.

What were the highlights?

While reserve work was often exhausting - filling in potholes, clearing bush, or working on a long-term project - one of my proudest moments was helping to build a 1.7km road, with nothing but machetes, pickaxes and saws. The project took a few weeks, a lot of teamwork, and a great deal of character building.

It was most rewarding when we added the road to the map and drove along it, spotting a family of warthogs that had already taken residence there. We saw a vast array of game, from sable antelope, to the African wild dog - with only 500 left in South Africa, they're the country's most endangered predator. My favourite sighting was in my last week, when we found a large female spotted hyena with her puppies; an evening I'll never forget.

What were the biggest challenges?

The physical strain of reserve work, especially the road, sometimes got the better of me, but the reward was far greater. It made every sweaty, hot, 5am start absolutely worthwhile.

How will the skills you developed help your career?

I developed my teamwork skills and learned to make the best of a bad situation. When we arrived, we hit the ground running, so you had to quickly learn the ropes and persevere. These skills are paramount to surviving in the working world, where having the ability to pick up skills and retain information is the key to success. I hope I'll be able to use these skills not only on my university course, but later in life when I face similar situations where I'll need to be flexible and agile in my work.

What advice would you give to others considering a gap year?

My gap year was thoroughly rewarding. I've grown so much in one year and feel much better prepared for university. I developed interpersonal skills, as well as specialist skills from both working at the café, and my travels. Having to work to fund my trip, and budget carefully was also a big lesson, and one I'll be able to use throughout my degree and beyond.

To make the most out of your gap year, I'd encourage you to grasp every opportunity that comes your way, whether you're travelling, working or volunteering. For the project I took part in, the information is at your fingertips, and your guides are incredibly knowledgeable. The opportunity is there, take it.

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