Volunteer Work on a Zimbabwe game reserve

Hello folks,

A few months ago I promised what I hoped would be a very interesting blog. Well here it finally is, please do give me your feedback and I hope it was worth the wait for you!

Some of you who know me may well know I have a great interest in Africa. I think it is somewhere that probably appeals to many firearms enthusiasts and hunters for the sense of adventure the great continent provides. In addition to the abundance of fantastic wildlife, the outdoor lifestyle and the rich history.

With that said and having being totally sick of the COVID nonsense and watching some of the best years of my life be wasted by ridiculous rules and regulations I decided to try and take a bit more control of my own destiny and combine travelling with wanting to do something different than a “conventional” holiday I began looking at volunteer work.
Initially I was hoping to find something where my background as an Engineer could be useful (teaching English probably wasn’t going to work considering my accent which was the source of much amusement in Zim!) it was then I found the opportunity to do volunteering on a game reserve in Zimbabwe and I could not believe how fortuitous the timing was as I had been reading up on the history of Zimbabwe and Rhodesia as you may have gathered by some of our previous blog posts. I promptly booked my place and arranged leave for 4 weeks.

 

Touchdown looking a little tired after the journey

 

Arriving at Victoria Falls Airport I was filled with excitement for the weeks ahead. I was fulfilling a long held dream to visit Africa and I was doing it at one of the most incredible places on the continent.  Passing through customs was fine and I was picked up by one of the guides who works on the reserve. (I will tell you more about these guys later but I have never met more knowledgeable, passionate and professional people in my life). The adventure started right away by travelling to the reserve in Safari jeep.

After departing Victoria Falls airport onto the motorway I enjoyed taking in the scenery for a few miles before we turned off onto a bush road to head to the reserve. There was not much wildlife around but I was just enjoying feeling the warm air rush by me, letting the excitement  build and was looking forward to chilling out after 20 hours travelling.

On the road

My daily transport

Arriving at the accommodation at the volunteer project I was told a little about the place and that I could have a walk around. It was  very quiet initially with 1 other volunteer before being joined by 2 more a fortnight later. This was because of all the restrictions although in some ways this might have been beneficial as I felt being part of a smaller team allowed more engagement with the staff and to perhaps get  more 1 to 1 teaching. The downside was of course the lack of income for the conservation project which carries out some really impressive and vital work in areas of conservation and anti poaching. This lack of income from tourism also has had a big effect on many people in the city who rely on tourism for their income and was particularly sad to see as there were no “furloughs” or taxpayer funded handouts there.

Anyway, I was told of the routine for the week ahead, so stowed my gear away, got my gear looked out for the morning and relaxed to start work on the Monday.

Now I wont go into detail of the exact routines as they generally followed the same structure every week but Ill talk about each activity as a whole.

Game Drives

This is actually what we started with and was a good way to break volunteers gently into things and being to familiarize us with the layout of the reserve. It would involve driving around the reserve making animal counts, looking for litter or anything that might need repaired urgently such as broken fences and reporting what couldn’t.  We got to see many animals up close and actually got mock charged by a naughty bull Elephant on my first drive!

It was incredible how close Elephant can get to you without making a sound. I understand this is largely down to what is known as acoustic fat on their pads which helps them move silently by absorbing any noise.

Naughty boy! I believe this particular Elephant was known for misbehaving.

Almost close enough to touch!

I already touched upon the knowledge of the guides and it really is no exaggeration when I say it was as if they were hooked up directly to the internet. No matter what animal or plant we witnessed these lads could give you every piece of information about it you could imagine off the top of their heads. Talking with the guides it was really fascinating to find out some of the process to becoming a professional guide or professional hunter. It  is something that takes many years of hard work and dedication. It was not just their vast knowledge of wildlife that sets these individuals apart but they also have to have the ability to stay calm around dangerous game, keeping guests calm & under direction and knowing if/when to take a shot at a charging animal, this of course would be an absolute last resort and a situation guides would try to avoid at all costs. Although similar in many regards I’m sure such things are something even the most experienced UK stalker has never thought about. I also suspect they would be very good at practical shooting as they told me a final part of the test involves shooting and running to simulate shooting under pressure whilst adrenaline is pumping.

The reserve I was volunteering on  also contained the rest of the big 5 which include Leopards, Lion, African(Cape) Buffalo and the most endangered Black Rhino. It is quite tragic that these magnificent animals are cruelly hunted for nothing more than their horn for traditional Chinese medicines(also a way for certain wealthy people to show how rich  they are by offering it to guests).

As someone that hunts I obviously have no issues with ethical sustainable hunting and proper management, however these animals are on the brink and continue to be poached for this “medicine.” The black market value of the horn, and the lengths poachers are willing to go to is being driven by this disgusting market. The risks and hard work undertaken by Anti Poaching Units, Guides, Hunters and REAL conservationists does not get the worldwide credit or support it deserves, instead voices are given to spoiled Scandinavian teenagers or virtue signalling celebrities, who cannot or will not understand the difference between sustainable hunting and illegal poaching. (I think this says all you need to know about the media).

The Black Rhino

 

Notice the Rhino in the background has been “De-horned” this is to reduce the risk of being targeted by poachers but it is a very delicate operation to carry out. The horn itself is mainly composed of keratin which as I am sure readers are aware is basically hair or fingernails.  There has been progress made in synthetic Rhino horn that is very difficult to tell from real horn and I understand it is being used to flood the market to reduce the value of real horn and thus make poaching not worthwhile.

 

An interesting way to tell the difference between Black Rhino and White Rhino told to me by one of our  guides was to compare them to Black Mothers and White Mothers, Black mothers carried their children on their backs, as Black Rhinos young would follow behind whereas White Mothers would push their children in prams as White Rhinos had their children walk in front of them!

Lion

The Lion were very elusive,  with the guides finding spoor on several occasions but unable to find the Lions but with the sense we were getting ever closer with fresher spoor. Then one day we heard a noise further down one of the roads that sounded like screaming and all hell breaking loose. Driving down we witnessed several Bush Buck running through the bush, baboons screaming and getting down from trees as fast as possible but fascinatingly with 1 or 2 old boys staying up to keep a lookout. At times we would catch a glimpse of Lions stalking their prey through the bush(thanks mostly to the excellent eyesight of our guides).  It was quite  amusing that we never got a full look at the Lions this day however the next day some youngsters and their mothers casually crossed one of the roads in front of us after all the time trying to track them!

Locate the Lion- As you can see the tawny Lion blends in very well with the dry vegetation in the bush. Yet our guides could spot them from a moving vehicle with apparent ease!

Lion Cub

Here Comes Mama!

African(Cape) Buffalo

African Buffalo- Males and Females can be differentiated by the horns, Male horns come closer together forming a “boss”

There were huge herd of African Buffalo on the reserve and it was definitely the most common of the big 5 to see. A couple of times we could hear them stampede if we spooked them on our approach and it was like a locomotive thundering through the bush!

Leopard

Unfortunately these chaps were far too elusive for me, and apart from  a pair of glowing eyes seen in the bush on the return from an evening drive I did not catch a confirmed sighting of any!

The reserve also had quite a few Giraffe present

Snacking

I love the “not impressed” look he seems to have

This chap was called Steve and was identifiable by his damaged Ossicone. Male Ossicones tend to be thicker and bald on top due to the practice of “necking”

There was also an abundance of other wildlife including various Antelope such as :

Impala with a guinea fowl in the background

Kudu

Kudu & Impala- I think this picture shows just how well Kudu can blend into the bush

Bush Buck

 

Sable which is also the national animal of Zimbabwe, this chap was very elusive and we only got sightings at a distance

The other wildlife included Baboons, Birds, Zebra and Mongoose amongst many others. Seeing such wonders for real was something else. For me it just made British wildlife seem so tame, I cannot imagine what the first Europeans thought when they seen these animals.

Baboons-Oo-er Matron

Zebra- The stripes in addition to being dazzling actually help regulate body temperature.

leopard tortoise- So called because of the Leopard like spots on its shell, is the 4th largest species of tortoise

Hungry Hungry Hippos

The remains of Pepe, here you can clearly see the size of the canine teeth, capable of inflicting a nasty bite!

White backed Vulture (if I recall correctly)

Southern ground hornbill

Tawny Eagle

Marabou Storks- Not a very attractive bird close up

Southern Red-Billed Hornbill

 

Maintenance & conservation work

Out repairing perimeter fence

It wasn’t all beer and skittles however as there was plenty of hard work to be done on the reserve. This was something I really enjoyed.  The work could be quite varied but would involve things such as repairing the fences around the reserve, clearing trees from the fence perimeter to allow animals time to see the fences and not walk into them and bring the fence down.  There were no power tools used here, it all involved hand tools and I have to admit as much as I tried I couldn’t keep up with the guides or Anti Poaching Guys out assisting with the work. I did find the physical work very rewarding however despite my hands being red raw after a few hours you left with a good feeling. I think  volunteering is something that you get as much out as you put into it. Some people may just want to do such things to get photographs for social media or to look good to friends but for me it was a very deep experience, being somewhere I’d always wanted to visit, working hard alongside skilled professionals and other passionate volunteers in the bush and getting to know them then chilling with a few Zambezi’s after. I couldn’t have wished for a better experience.

Chop Chop!

Doing a little bit of pruning!

Other duties would also be removing tree stumps from the roads around the reserve, again physical work but great fun smashing the hell out of them with pickaxes and digging them out, talk about stress relief!

Amelie working hard!

Generally we would head out at 6:00AM and return around 11:30 to avoid working in the hottest part of the day. We would return for lunch, catch some chill time before heading out again around 3:30/4:00PM

I don’t think I had enjoyed a lager so much than after a morning chopping down trees!

One of the more important but difficult objectives was digging out Lantana bushes, which is an invasive species that is competing with native plants and could also make some of the animals sick if eaten. This was usually done on Friday evenings and I recall the first time was absolute hell but by the end of my trip I did seem to pick up the knack of removing them and had probably acclimatised to the heat and physical work too. Unfortunately I don’t have too many pictures of this process as it was such hard work and I don’t think anyone really wanted to remember it!

Ripping out the Lantana Bushes, the technique would be prune them back, then dig around the roots with a pickaxe before levering them out. VERY HARD WORK!

During the Lantana work we also had the chance to speak to the lady who trains a mounted Anti Poaching Unit, she demonstrated some of the techniques used by poachers which often involved snares made from old electrical cables, I recall she was quite horrified when I told her it was a legal form of pest control in the United Kingdom! The local home brew Chibuku was also often used as a bait to bring animals in. It was also quite a sad time as one of the Anti Poaching rangers from this unit was recently killed by being trampled by an Elephant. It really does show that these men and women do indeed put their lives on the line for animal conservation.

 

Working with a local Rural School

Part of the volunteer programme included helping at a nearby Primary School, this would normally be on a Friday morning I must admit this almost brought me to tears seeing how little the children had and the efforts they had to go to get to school, many walking a couple of miles through the bush full of dangerous game to get to school and often not even with decent shoes. Despite this they were always smiling and full of fun. For me this really put into perspective just how much abundance we have in our countries and quite how spoiled we really are.

The school grounds

The first job was to repair the fence around the school community garden. This had been damaged by an Elephant which broke in a couple of times, one night eating all the lettuce and another eating all the carrots! To deter this we made “Chilli Bombs” this involved grinding down dry chilli peppers and mixing them with  used engine oil and Elephant dung into “sand castles” and placing them around the perimeter of the garden alongside strips of fabric tied to the fence.

Grinding the Chillies, in this case the masks weren’t for COVID but to try and protect us from the incredibly strong chilli!

Make your own Chilli bombs at home 4 lumps of Elephant dung,  a gallon of used engine oil and 2 1/2 cups of freshly ground chilli

Hot stuff coming through

Cutting the strips of fabric

hanging strips of cloth soaked in chilli infused oil around the fence to deter wildlife from raiding the garden.

This did seem to work as there were no other invasions for the rest of my time there! I have to say I’m not surprised either despite wearing latex gloves whilst grinding the chilli they burst and I got chilli on my hands and they burned for hours afterwards!!!

The following week we carried out repairs to the fence around the school garden. I was also very happy that my Engineering background came in useful a couple of times as we carried out repairs to some of the taps and valves around the schools water supply system.

Digging holes to replace rotten stumps. The Engine oil was brought out again to coat the bottom of the posts to deter rot and termites.

Working with Swiss volunteer Urs. Absolute top bloke.

I also took the opportunity to try and teach a few of the kids about engineering and make a wee “maintenance squad” to look after the irrigation system of the garden. I have to say that although they were young these children really did have a great intellect, showing  an ability to think outside the box and if given the opportunity for secondary education and an apprenticeship I think would have made fantastic tradesmen and women.

The maintenance squad hard at work!

The classrooms felt a little bit like going back in time for me as I’m just old enough to remember blackboards and not having a computer in sight. The teachers and pupils really do make the most and do very well with what they have.

This is something I will miss as I would really have liked to have worked with my little team a bit longer. During my time there it was also fortunate that we were able to take part in a charity walk in aid of the school.  The contrast between the rural areas and the city of Victoria Falls was quite staggering as we walked through some of the outer villages where there isn’t any power and it is traditional mud and thatch huts.


Sundowners, Camping and Bush Walks

Wednesday evenings usually involved a bit of gardening/maintenance work around the accommodation then an evening drive around the reserve looking for any issues, if any animals were spotted our guides would also contact any other guides working via radio  so they could bring any tourists on booked drives to see them. We would usually park up and watch the sun go down with a couple of beers. The African sunset is without doubt one of the most beautiful and captivating things I have seen, with so many colours watching the sun change from yellow, to orange, to pink to almost red before finally disappearing. I’ve attached just a few of my favourite pictures.

Touch the sky!

 

Elephant on the drive back after sundown

Camping and Bush Walks

Thursday mornings would  involve some more work in and around the reserve then camping in the bush on Thursday evenings followed by a Bush walk on the Friday morning.

The camps were amazing, sitting around the fire after a half braai with a few beers and stick bread listening to the stories of the guides. We heard some truly fascinating tales of adventure and danger in the bush. I also sampled the local Chibuku which was definitely an acquired taste but I did grow to enjoy it! For those wondering what it is, it is a type of thick beer made from mealie meal. Also called Super by the locals it certainly was Food and Drink!

Camping by the famous Boabab or Upside down tree. The fruit of this tree was quite interesting with a kind of hard sherbet texture and flavour

I finally got to wear all the safari clothes I’d collected over the years without looking out of place!

 

At one of the campsites which was a former manmade watering hole for animals. This hole used to get water physically pumped to it before others were established

 

Bush Walks

After camping, we would pack our gear, have breakfast, tidy the area to leave to leave it as we found it then head out for our bush walks. These were very exciting as it allowed us to get off the roads and really let the guides demonstrate their knowledge of the bush. Literally ever single plant, or animal you asked about could be explained in depth, I’m talking full names, latin names, what it was used for, what animals eat it, everything you could possibly wish to know.

It also gave a sense of adventure as you tried to get close to animals without spooking them. A particular highlight was getting close to some Black Rhino only for the mama Rhino to pick up our scent. As we carefully left the area we had to keep moving as she walked up to where we had been and followed us for a couple of hundred yards.

Rhino dead ahead!

Can you spot the Rhino here? This picture really does highlight the keen eyesight and awareness the guides have to be able to avoid walking right on top of animals and into a dangerous situation.

 

She is on to us!

 

 

Onwards into the bush

Professional Guide Lewis and myself! Another great bloke with a lot of fantastic stories!

The A-team. Pictured with 2 of my fellow volunteers a pair of superstars who helped make the experience all the more enjoyable.

Time Off

I’m sure by this point everyone who is reading is wondering “Did you actually go to see the Falls?”

So the answer is YES! The first Tuesday of a volunteers arrival involved a trip into the City to visit The Victoria Falls National Park and  to collect some supplies from the Supermarket.

Outside the entrance to the national park.. The entrance sign is in the distinctive kettle shape of Zimbabwe

The time of Year I went was probably pretty good as the falls were flowing but had scaled back quite a bit so they were not hidden behind a cloud of mist so I had unrestricted views and I have to say they really were stunning. If you are a believer in God then I would imagine this is what you would say was made by his hand.

Victoria Falls or Mosi-oa-Tunya (The smoke that thunders) are located on the mighty Zambezi River right on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. They are just over a mile wide and the first European to see them was the Scottish Explorer and missionary David Livingstone who named them the Victoria Falls in honour of Queen Victoria. The city of Livingstone on the Zambian side of the falls is also named after him, The city of Blantyre in  Malawi is also named after his place of birth, it does raise a dry smile seeing all these Scottish names halfway around the world. Livingstone of course is not only renowned for his exploring but also in his role in ending the slave trade in Africa.

Statue of David Livingstone( 19 March 1813 – 1 May 1873) within the national park

Onto the actual falls I have attached some of my favourite pictures but just like the sunsets I am afraid they are unable to do justice to just how fantastic the Falls really are.

As you can see whilst still impressive this is the falls when they are fairly tame. If you look online you can seem images and videos of the spray from the fall hundreds of feet in the air at a great distance!

The landscape was truly incredible here as you felt like you were on flat land only to find this massive gorge carved by the waters of the Zambezi

 

A brave Vervet Monkey, these chaps have quite a distinctive bright blue Scrotum which to everyone’s disappointment isn’t visible in this picture. You may also notice the red raft in the gorge. This will lead me on to another story….

 

As an Engineer to trade I was also keen to see the iconic Victoria Falls Bridge. This iconic bridge was built as part of Cecil Rhodes plans to build a railway line from “Cape to Cairo” it was prefabricated in England, shipped to Beira in Mozambique before being assembled and completed in 1905. The bridge is still in use today and was especially busy with lorries laden with copper coming from Zambia. Due to the age of the bridge and weight of the cargo only 1 lorry was permitted to cross at a time. The brave can also take advantage of a bungee jump from the bridge.

The Victoria Falls Bridge, how many Monkeys can you spot on the bridge girders?

Other Activities

On my first weekend off I ventured into town with one of the other volunteers as we had booked white water rafting on the Mighty Zambezi. As you will have seen in the image above, we set off in the gorge itself were the red raft is pictured. I have to say this was a truly incredible experience, with experienced professional staff taking you through the powerful rapids. Although there was one point where I thought I was a goner.

Raring to go

After a thorough safety brief on land, we spent a bit of time on the water practicing commands and following instruction.

Off we go!

Being in the Zambezi gorge was incredible in itself truly witnessing the changes to the landscape caused by the powerful waters.

As we started rafting it was a fantastic slow build up, the patter from our lead guide/instructor Colgate was top notch and he would often enjoy pointing out the crocodiles sitting on the rocks by the side of the river. At one of the rapids, Number 3 if I recall correctly everyone was knocked out the boat, and I can remember thinking “hey this is great, the water is warm, the rapids aren’t too bad, brilliant” as we moved on we managed to mostly stay in the raft until we got to rapid number 7-Gullivers travels, the experience I will try to describe below.

Entering Rapid number 7-Gulliver’s Travels….

Once again we were all sent flying out the boat as we tried to navigate this powerful rapid. I recall landing on top off one of the other rafters, my first thought was to grab them and help them to the surface as this individual wasn’t the most confident. I quickly realised however, that I could just have easily been pulling them down so I let them go to let the life jacket do its job.

It seemed like an eternity when I surfaced in what seemed like a boiling pot of water, I was immediately skelpt in the face with water, and tried but was unable to get back to the raft, so I thought just ride it out like the last one. However this was quite a different experience! I was taken by the currents to the left whilst everyone else seemed to get swept to the right,

I could already see the other rafters being swept down river to the right where I felt unable to move, trapped by the currents and shear power of the Zambezi waters

You can see whilst others were getting retrieved I was swept far to the left, trapped in the swirling, surging waters!

As the others were getting picked up I felt as if I got stuck in a section of water that was constantly tumbling me and pulling me down, by this point I had been unable to really catch my breath and I can recall being underwater, wondering when I was going to break the surface and coming to the realisation that I was going to have to breath, Although it was likely seconds it seemed like minutes ticking by as I opened my  burning lungs, preparing to take in water when I broke the surface at the same time, gratefully taking in what air I could as I was once again slammed in the face by the Zambezi, taking in more water! I could feel the panic building in me and I thought I need to get out of here, my mind was racing, thinking I’ll swim to the rocks, then I quickly realised that even if I could, I would likely be smashed against them, I tried to keep my feet forward and head up but the powerful rapids kept, tumbling me, the thought once again flashed my mind that “I’ve came all this way, and I’m going to be deid in the first week!”, immediately I also thought “oh well, I suppose its a pretty cool way to go” at the same moment I resolved that I had to stay calm as panicking would make the situation worse, So I managed to compose myself and ride out the mighty rapids. One of the safety boats finally managed to try to get to me but once again the flow of the rapids was too strong. So I had to ride it all the way through to the next calm spot where the Kayak could get to me. Approaching the raft the Kayak tried to tow me but I was too heavy for it, and also in an attempt to regain some of my machismo and not look completely terrified for the cameras I shouted “ITS OK I’LL SWIM!!”  at that point I can honestly say crocodiles did not concern me I just wanted back on the raft! Once aboard I had to ask our instructor to give me a few minutes as I had to vomit up a few pints of fresh Zambezi water. For a few days after I did think wow that was really close, but I guess Nyami Nyami was looking out for me that day and I would without a doubt do the rafting again!

I think its also worth pointing out that no one fell out of the raft after that!!

In this picture I think it shows just how quickly the Zambezi goes from calm into chaos!

Victoria Falls Hotel

Although I didn’t stay in it I also wanted to visit the  historic Victoria Falls hotel and treat myself to a Gin and Tonic. Stepping into the Hotel was like going back in time. It was very much in the Colonial style as you can see with the following pictures.  I’m sure it would be lovely staying here but it was a little out of my price range!

The hotel Entrance

Enjoying a gin with the Victoria Falls Bridge in the background

 

 

After entering you would walk through an atrium to the back of the hotel

Decor from a by-gone age

King George the Vth on the wall

walking out to Stanley’s terrace

The view from the garden at the bottom of Stanley’s terrace

I would spend most weekends staying in the local hostel in Victoria falls as it fortunately had a bar and was allowed to stay open until 10 there was still some kind of nightlife! I was overwhelmed by the friendliness of the locals and had a great time playing pool, having a few beers and even got involved in a game of volleyball, which I was absolutely atrocious at, much to the annoyance of my team mates! It certainly wasn’t something you’d play in a pub in Scotland!

Overall The experience was incredibly profound and life changing for me. I felt really at home in Zimbabwe, just talking with the staff and locals about things such as shooting, hunting, conservation, our mutual love of Land Rover Defenders…. everything was just top notch. As one of the Professional Hunters who accompanied us on one of our camping trips said ” It gets in your blood” and I can totally understand why. I  will definitely return.

I made a lot of good friends in Victoria Falls, the staff of the reserve and with the other volunteers. It was a truly wonderful experience and I cannot praise the staff of the reserve enough. Every single one of them made me feel really welcome and showed a real dedication to their trades. I mentioned the guides  but I’d also like to say that the chefs cooking for us were fantastic too, they made fantastic meals and ensured we were well fuelled for the days of work ahead of us. If you were ever thinking of volunteering or your children were thinking about it I could not recommend this highly enough. I hope my blog has given you some small taste of just how fantastic this was and if you’d like to find out more then please leave a comment or you can catch up with me in person at the Northern Shooting Show this May.

I’ll leave you now with a selection of some more pictures of my time there.

Land Rover-You can never go wrong

Not quite a Dazzle of Zebra

Long may these guys be protected

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