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As we become more conscious of our impacts on the planet, ecotourism is increasing in popularity. And since COVID-19 locked us all down, the trend for longer, slower travel is on the rise. Rather than hopping from city to city, leaving a trail of CO2 emissions behind us, many people are opting for more sustainable methods of travel, as well as ensuring their impact on culture, community and the planet is greener and more positive.
One way to improve the sustainability of your trips is to opt into a volunteer programme. Not only do you get to help organisations that need it, but you also get to meet incredible, like-minded people, step out of your comfort zone, and enjoy once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Having never volunteered before, I started researching the best places to volunteer in Africa and stumbled across the Amakhala Volunteers programme. After reading what a typical work day involved, I was hooked on the idea and booked my trip within a matter of weeks through The Mighty Roar.
Since I returned from volunteering in South Africa at Amakhala Game Reserve, I wanted to write a blog post detailing everything you need to know about how to volunteer in South Africa with Amakhala Volunteers.
This information is up to date at the time of my trip in May 2023.
Everything you need to know about volunteering in South Africa at Amakhala Game Reserve
Let’s start at the beginning! You’ll need to fly into Port Elizabeth airport to be collected by your transfer and taken to the Amakhala Volunteers house in the town of Paterson, which is around a 1-hour drive from the airport.
When booking your transfers, you have a couple of options. If you book through The Mighty Roar, you will be able to choose from a shared or private transfer. A shared transfer is £80 return, while a private transfer is £90 return. On The Mighty Roar website, they explain that the shared transfer will collect you from the airport at 2pm on the day of arrival, and drop you off at 9am on the day of departure. However, our flight left at 2pm on the day of departure and our driver was happy to take us to the airport a bit later as no other volunteers were leaving that day.
As a general rule, if you opt for the shared transfer, it seems they will take you to the airport two hours before whoever’s flight leaves the earliest.
Another option is to book an Uber on arrival at Port Elizabeth Airport. One of the other volunteers did this and it worked out a lot cheaper. Checking Uber now, the cheapest price is listed at 575 ZAR one way which is approximately £24. However, bear in mind that while it will be easy to find an Uber in the city of Port Elizabeth, they are not so easy to come by in Paterson, which is a fairly remote area so may make the return journey to the airport difficult.
Having never been before, we opted for the shared transfer. But if I went again, I’d book an Uber and then pay for a lift back to the airport with the volunteer crew or using a local taxi and pay the fee for that separately.
If you opt for the shared or private transfers, you’ll be picked up from outside the airport. When we arrived, we were a little confused as to where to go as the instructions weren’t very clear, but after a few minutes waiting inside the airport, a friendly man wearing an Amakhala shirt and cap found us and we began our journey to the house in the minibus.
Arriving at Amakhala Volunteers House
Arriving at the volunteer house, we were greeted by the Volunteer Coordinators and the rest of the volunteers. Everyone was super friendly and welcoming, and made us feel at home really quickly. One of the Volunteer Coordinators gave us an induction, showed us around the house and ran us through how the week would work and all the important things we needed to know. We were then shown to our rooms and left to settle in. We spent the first evening getting to know the other volunteers, eating together around the table and got an early night, ready for the 6am start the next morning.
You’ll be staying at the volunteer house for the duration of your time volunteering in South Africa. The house was converted from an old railway station and is situated on the outskirts of Paterson. The house is around a 15-30 minute drive to Amakhala Game Reserve, depending on which entrance you use to access the reserve.
The accommodation is simple, and very communal, with a large well-equipped kitchen and a large communal lounge. The lounge has a TV with some streaming services. The house has good WiFi but I found the signal was weak in our bedroom which was quite far away from the lounge. The bedrooms are clean and comfortable, but if you’re travelling alone, you will likely have to share a bedroom with one or two other people, and will definitely need to share a bathroom. I found the house and bathrooms to be fairly clean, albeit a little rundown but this didn’t bother me at all. You don’t expect 5-star luxury when volunteering in Africa so I think it’s important to manage expectations.
There is a large beautiful garden with a firepit, braai area and small swimming pool, although the pool was out of order for the duration of our trip and didn’t look great. We spent most evenings sat around a fire in the garden, laughing, drinking, playing music and chilling with the rest of the volunteers, or playing cards at the kitchen table.
Food and Drink
When booking through The Mighty Roar, we were led to believe that our evening meal would be cooked for us every night. However, this is not the case. Reading back over the information now, The Mighty Roar use wording that is slightly misleading, so it’s important to note that you will be responsible for making all of your own meals, except for on a Monday when your evening meal will be made for you.
The house is well stocked with breakfast, lunch and dinner items which you can use free of charge. A supermarket order is placed every week and if you want a specific food item for the following week, you’ll need to request it before the shopping is ordered, or puchase it yourself from a local shop. Available breakfast items include cereals, bread, eggs and fruit. Lunch can be made up of leftovers from dinner the night before, sandwiches, pasta, salads – but you must prepare this yourself and take it with you when you leave for the day, as lunch will often be eaten on the go while working. Tea, coffee and hot chocolate are freely available in the cupboards.
With the exception of Monday night, we cooked our own food. Sometimes we cooked together, other times we ate leftovers or just cooked for ourselves.
You can, of course, purchase your own food from local shops, although the choice in local shops in Paterson is limited. If you do buy your own food, there is a separate fridge you can use to store this in, so everyone knows the food belongs to one of the volunteers.
You will be responsible for buying all your own alcohol, and there is a liquor store a 1-minute walk away, although the opening times were sporadic. There is also another liquor store in Paterson, which is about a 10-15 minute walk away from the house. The volunteer coordinators were usually happy to stop at the liquour store on our way back from the reserve, when we asked.
Amakhala Volunteer Programme and Activities
If there’s one thing I can say for sure, it’s that no two weeks are the same when volunteering in South Africa at Amakhala Game Reserve. Volunteer activities range from taking part in the annual game count, erosion and alien vegetation control, working with the vet (if you’re lucky), fence patrols, predator tracking using telemetry equipment, as well as working in the local community to deliver soup kitchens and working with children in nearby schools.
You will receive your schedule for the week on either a Sunday or Monday, but you should be prepared to go with the flow, as the schedule changes frequently, and sometimes at the last minute. My advice is embrace whatever it is you end up doing!
What Does a Typical Week Look Like with Amakhala Volunteers?
We were super lucky to arrive at Amakhala at the start of the Annual Game Count, so most of our first week revolved around this. I spent two weeks volunteering at Amakhala and have provided our planned schedule below, along with what we actually ended up doing.
Planned Activities – Week 1
Tuesday – 06:00 Start
Annual Game Count – Main Reserve
Erosion Control – Bush Packing (didn’t do – game count took too long)
Wednesday – 06:30 Start
Annual Game Count – Northern Territory
Alien Vegetation Control (didn’t do – had a flat tyre during game count)
Thursday – 07:30 Start
Word Works – Sidbury School
Budding Q – Sidbury School
Food Scheme / Soup Kitchen
Friday – 07:30 Start
Canoeing on Sundays River
Vehicle Maintenance – washing cars
Planned Activities – Week 2
Monday – 08:00 Start
Budding Q – Sidbury School
Food Scheme / Soup Kitchen
Beading Club – Church
Tuesday – 08:30 Start
Wednesday – 06:00 Start
Predator Monitoring – (didn’t do – flat tyre on the way)
Veg Rehab (didn’t do – flat tyre on the way)
Free Night Stay at Safari Lodge
Thursday – 07:00 Start
Annual Game Count – Canarvon Dale
Friday – 07:30 Start
Main Reserve Bush Walk
BIRPS (identifying and recording birds)
Staying at Amakhala Safari Lodge
All volunteers staying for 2 weeks or more qualify for a free stay in Amkhala’s luxury Safari Lodge. Safari Lodge is situated on the Northern Territory Reserve in a beautiful valley. The lodges are stunning and definitely deliver a luxury experience, with a beautiful private verandah and private plunge pool, overlooking the small valley, which is often filled with incredible wildlife.
On arrival, the staff took our orders for dinner, and served up some afternoon snacks of delicious cakes and fruit. We treated ourselves to some drinks before heading back to our individual rooms to relax and soak in the large luxury bathtub. The bathroom opens out into the reserve and I was able to soak in the tub while watching giraffes and zebra just a few feet away from me! It was a magical experience.
We enjoyed an incredible 3 course meal served in the main dining room around 8:30pm and then headed back to our rooms to get an early night and relax. Before going to sleep, I couldn’t resist taking the duvet out on to the verandah to look at the stars. With such little light pollution, the stars were absolutely mesmerising – you could even see the band of the Milky Way Galaxy with the naked eye. Before long, sitting outside alone in the silence, I heard rustling in the bushes below and over the next hour was treated to a private audience with zebra, eland, kudu, giraffes and wildebeast, walking right past my verandah to drink from the watering hole. This turned out to be one of the most amazing nights of the trip for me.
Breakfast was served early for us as we had to be ready for the day’s volunteer work at 7am.
You can also book an independent stay at one of Amakhala’s Safari Lodges depending on availability during your stay. Book your stay at Amakhala Safari Lodge.
Evening and Weekend Activities
As a volunteer, you’ll work Monday to Friday and have the weekends off to relax, explore and enjoy time to yourself. There are a huge amount of things you can do at the weekend, with a lot of flyers and leaflets for local attractions pinned on the volunteer information board in the lounge.
On our first Saturday, we booked a surf lesson in Port Elizabeth and spent some time exploring the area. On the Sunday, we booked a one night stay at Quater Mains Tented Safari Camp, which I’ll write more about in another blog post. On our second Saturday, we booked a day trip to Addo Elephant Park, and on the Sunday we went to Daniell Cheetah Project.
Other activities you can choose from include:
- Bush walks
- Horse riding
- Weekend trips to Jeffrey’s Bay – Book accommodation in Jeffrey’s Bay
- River cruises on Sunday’s River – Book a river cruise
- The Born Free Big Cat Sanctuary
- Bungee jumping – Book a bungee jump at Tsitsikamma National Park
- Ziplining – Book ziplining at Tsitsikamma National Park
- Whale watching tours
- Sandboarding – Book sandboarding in Colchester
Some activities are weather dependent and only available in certain seasons.
It’s important to note though, that if you’re on a budget, many of these activities aren’t cheap and you’ll have to arrange your own transport. We used a local taxi driver called Rodwin, a lovely guy, but the prices for taxis are fairly expensive and work on a per person basis, rather than an standard trip fare.
Throughout the week, you’ll also have most of the evenings to yourself. Most of our work days were finished by mid-afternoon, so from 3pm you are free to do whatever you like. There is a small bar just a 1-minute walk from the house, but it’s not always open and if you want to go, you’ll need to contact the owner to ask him to open it for you. He works nights on Amakhala so it’s not always possible for him to open the bar, but he will if he can.
Other than this, there isn’t really anything else to do in the local area of an evening, but on Wednesdays, the rangers go to Sidbury Social Club for drinks and to play pool, so you can book a taxi to go here on a Wednesday evening – every other week, the Volunteer Coordinators take the volunteers to Sidbury Social Club in the minibus. Otherwise, we spent most evenings sat around the fire or around the table playing cards.
Other Things you Should Know
Tap water is not drinkable. You can access drinking water from a huge rainwater butt in the garden. If this doesn’t sound appealling, you’ll need to buy bottled water from a local shop. I drank from the rain water butt every day and had an upset stomach for a few days, but it didn’t really affect me too much.
Loadshedding is a huge part of life in South Africa. The South African energy crisis or Loadshedding is an ongoing issue of widespread national blackouts of electricity supply. Loadshedding times can be found online for the day ahead, so you can prepare and arrange your schedule around it. During loadshedding, all electricity and water supply is unavailable, meaning you can’t cook, shower or even flush a toilet. While loadshedding can be disruptive for sure, we learnt to love it – perfect opportunity to sit outside under the stars and talk, without devices to distract us. It was a scheduled break from the constant pace of life. A typical loadshedding schedule could look something like this:
The times change every day so it’s important to check the loadshedding times the day before so you know when you can shower and cook. For example, if you know you need to leave the house at 6am the next morning, but loadshedding starts at 5am, you’ll either need to shower the night before, or be up at 4:30am to shower before loadshedding starts.
The house has a small generator which powers the TV and WiFi during blackouts.
Paterson – What’s There?
Paterson is a small town in the Sarah Baartman District Municipality in the Eastern Cape province. In Paterson, you’ll find a handful of amenities including two coffee shops, a few grocery stores (although choice of products is fairly limited in all), a fuel station, a liquor store and a couple of other local shops.
If you’re a coffee snob like me, and need good coffee, I can recommend Addo Brauhaus, which is only a 10-minute walk form the volunteer house.
We also had a bad experience where we were charged way too much for some food we brought from a local shop and didn’t realise until it was too late to haggle. So it’s best to stick to the grocery store that the volunteer coordinators take you to as they are really friendly and charge fair prices.
Answering Your Questions About Volunteering in South Africa at Amakhala Game Reserve
How much spending money will I need to take?
The Mighty Roar recommends you take £100 per week, but I needed quite alot more than this. If you’re happy to stay at the house all weekend and chill, £100 will probably be OK, but if you want to use your free time to explore, you’ll need alot more.
Public transport is non-existent in Paterson, so if you want to get anywhere at the weekends, you’ll need to book a private taxi, which gets expensive. Add weekend activities and food and drink to that and you’ll probably be looking at £200-300 per week. If you want to enjoy activities like skydiving and whale watching tours, you’ll need even more.
If you run out of money, there are some ATMs in Paterson, but they do charge a fee to withdraw.
Is it safe to volunteer in South Africa?
It’s true that South Africa is known to be a dangerous country and has its fair share of problems. However, speaking from personal experience, we had no problems while we were there. Both in Cape Town and Paterson, we were careful to not show our valuables, only took the cash we needed that day and we also didn’t walk around the streets at night. We took an Uber everywhere and kept our bags in front of us. Like a lot of countries around the world, anything could happen at any time, so it’s important to keep your wits about you and be sensible.
Will I get to see the Big Five?
Amakhala is a Big Five reserve so there is a chance you will see the Big Five. However, nothing is ever guaranteed as these wild animals roam freely and are not always easy to find as they can be anywhere in the 85km sq reserve. It’s also important to note that while Amakhala does have a leopard, it is extremely elusive and sightings are very rare. Other animals you may see include giraffes, warthogs, cheetahs, hippos, elephants, zebra and many other different kinds of antelope such as eland, kudu, springbuck and more. If you’re interested in birds, you’re also in for a treat as we spotted many unusual and incredible types of birds with my favourite being a white-fronted bee-eater.
The rangers will do their very best to find the animals for you, but it’s also important to remember that you are volunteering to work and not a paying safari guest. If you want to see a specific animal, it may be best to book a night in one of the safari lodges or tented camps at the weekend, as these usually come with a game drive or two. We stayed at Quatermains Tented Camp at £120 per night, per person. This came with an evening game drive and an early morning game drive. Prices may depend on the time of year and the day you book, so it’s best to check the prices directly with the lodge or camp when you arrive at Amakhala.
How long is an average work day?
You can expect to be up very early most days, although the start of the work day depends on which activity you are doing. The work schedule will tell you what time your work day will start. On average, work days start between 6-7:30am, and finish by mid-afternoon. The finish time depends on the start time and the activity you are doing that day. On average, our work day ended between 2-3pm.
Is it safe to travel solo?
The majority of Amakhala volunteers are solo travellers, so you won’t be alone. You will spend most of the week with the volunteers and will make friends very quickly. You will be collected from the airport and dropped back off to the airport by the volunteer crew, and the volunteer coordinators really look after everyone, so you won’t feel alone on this trip even if you’re a solo traveller.
How many other volunteers are there?
The number of volunteers vary from week to week. During our first week, there were only 6 of us. During the second week, the number rose to 13. The house is large and can accommodate 14 volunteers, I believe although I can’t recall the exact number of beds.
What clothing should I take?
The clothing you take depends a little on the time of year you go. I went to Amkhala in May, which is autumn in South Africa. The mornings and evenings were quite chilly at times, especially travelling to the day’s activities in the open top Jeep at 6am. Don’t underestimate how cold it gets in that Jeep! I’m talking hat, scarf wrapped around your face, several layers and a blanket – you can grab blankets from the volunteer house.
During the day, the temperature was warm and shorts and t-shirt were absolutely fine. A light fleece was needed in the evening and on cloudier days.
For work days, you’ll need light hiking trousers. I bought these lightweight hiking trousers that also turn into shorts from Amazon and two of these fleeces from Go Outdoors. I recommend cheap clothing that you don’t mind getting dirty or torn as working out in the bush can be messy.
You’ll also want to take some clothes for the evenings and weekends. I took a pair of jeans, a few casual tops, a dress and a skirt and a pair of shorts. Don’t forget your swimsuit or swimming trunks too!
A good sturdy pair of hiking boots would be advisable for work days on the reserve, and a comfortable pair of trainers and a pair of sandals or flip flops for the evenings and weekends.
It’s also a good idea to take a good quality waterproof coat. Driving in the pouring rain in an open top Jeep is not much fun without waterproofs!
Are there clothes washing facilities at the house?
Yes! The volunteer house has a washing machine, and the team of people who work at the house will wash your clothes for you from Monday to Friday. You need to leave your dirty clothes in a wash bag in the wash room and check back a day or two later to collect your clean clothes. They won’t keep your items seperate from everyone elses though, so it can be difficult to keep track of your clothes, as they will likely get muddled in with everyone elses. I lost my jeans for a few days and found them in another wardrobe with someone else’s washing purely by accident. You can also do your own washing at the weekends.
Do I need malaria tablets to volunteer in South Africa?
South Africa’s Eastern Cape is malaria free, so you shouldn’t need malaria tablets. It’s best to check with a medical professional before you travel to enquire about any other vaccinations you may require, especially if you’re travelling elsewhere in Africa.
Would I recommend volunteering in South Africa at Amakhala Game Reserve?
100% yes! The two weeks I spent volunteering in South Africa at Amakhala Game Reserve gave me some of the best life experiences of my life, I made friends for life, laughed more than I have in years and learnt so much about the wildlife and life in South Africa! I will absolutely be planning another trip. The only negative from my trip was having to leave after 2 weeks! Don’t hesitate to book your volunteering trip to Amakhala. It will literally be the trip of a lifetime!
Are you planning on volunteering in South Africa? Have you booked a trip to Amakhala Game Reserve? If so, I’d love to hear your experiences and if you have any questions about how to volunteer in Africa, please drop them in the comments below.