Three Weeks in Africa Caring for Rhinos

I made it. January 2017. To the Care For Wild project in South Africa I applied for in 2012. I deferred the opportunity the first time around to move to London instead. Luckily for me, African Conservation Experience (ACE) still had my application from last time so I didn’t even have to reapply!

Quarantine team

For anyone interested in volunteering at Care For Wild, I can confirm this is a genuine project dedicated to the care of rhinos. The money you pay as a volunteer for this experience (which includes food and accommodation) is invested into better equipment, improving the living areas and conditions for the rhinos, food, medicine and up to 60 staff to ensure 24/7 security. And they’re only the things I’ve seen for myself.

If you’re like me and travel to this project alone, these 10 tips will help you feel prepared:

  1. Get a local sim card from MTN at Johannesburg Airport, they have the best signal at the project (cost around 220 rand for 1.5GB of data and 60 rand worth of phone calls and texts)
  2. Budget wise you’ll need around 4000 rand for 3 weeks – 1200 rand for the day trip to Kruger and the rest for things like data and airtime for your sim, breakfast and lunch at Kruger, lunch and shopping in town, souvenirs etc
  3. Check if you need a Visa to enter South Africa, as an Australian I was exempt
  4. Print a copy of your volunteering paperwork to show customs upon arrival in South Africa
  5. Do your research – you can either book through ACE, directly with Care For Wild or through other organisations at different prices
  6. Don’t volunteer in summer if you don’t cope well in hot weather (during 24 January and 14 February it was often 35+ degrees celsius)
  7. Make the effort to increase your fitness levels before you arrive, it will save you feeling like you want to run home in the first few days!
  8. Pack work gloves – you’ll want them when you’re picking up rhino dung and soiled teff (type of hay) with your hands and cutting up chunks of meat!
  9. Pack books (or something to do during downtime between feeds) unless you’re happy with random books left behind by other volunteers
  10. Ladies pack a sports bra it is VERY bumpy on the back of the ute

What to expect and what NOT to expect…

Expect: 

  • a fence or barricade between you and the rhinos
  • to work hard and get dirty EVERY day
  • one trip into town per week
  • cold showers unless during set times
  • bugs and LOTS of them

Don’t expect: 

  • to hug and sleep next to rhinos
  • to take loads of photos and post them on social media
  • to party – there is no alcohol allowed on this project except for special occasions
  • to travel outside the project during your volunteering period except 1 day at Kruger National Park
  • an extensive induction program – learning is on the job under supervision

Tuesday – Flight to Johannesburg

Flying from London to Johannesburg is long but not as long as back home to Australia. So after the stress of making sure I’d packed everything I needed in the bush, around 20km away from the closest town, I finally relaxed during the flight. Total flight time 10 hours. I flew with Virgin Atlantic and scored 3 seats in a row to myself which meant SLEEP! It was perfect because the flight departed at 6:55pm on Monday and I was arriving in Johannesburg around 8am Tuesday morning and needed as much sleep as I could get.

When I arrived I lined up at customs, showed them a copy of my volunteering paperwork and after answering a few questions I was allowed through to pick up my bag. An ACE representative was waiting for me in the arrivals area holding a sign with my name on it. We stopped quickly at MTN to get a local sim card before heading upstairs to meet the other volunteer and Martin from ACE.

It was really interesting listening to Martin as he helped set our expectations for the experience. After finishing our coffee and chat, Martin showed us to the shuttle bus that was taking us and around 10 other people to Nelspruit. The bus left Johannesburg Airport at 10:45am and including a quick stop along the way, it took us about 3.5 hours.

A Care For Wild staff member picked us and another volunteer up to take us the rest of the way to the Care For Wild project. The first animals we saw on the reserve were impalas. The surrounding rolling green mountains were beautiful and part of me wished I was there for a holiday. A glass of wine on a balcony with that view… yes please!

But of course we were there to care for rhinos and other wildlife. As we were settling into our rooms, I could hear an animal noise I just assumed must be the rhinos. Turns out it was the hippos! I have a lot to learn. At 5:30pm we joined the more experienced volunteers feed baby rhinos Zac, Jemu, Grey and Spirit. What an experience! Sharing a room with 3 others, cold showers (sometimes) and the early mornings were certainly going to be worth it.

Speaking of which, here’s a quick description of our accommodation. Each room has 2 bunk beds so you’re sharing with 3 others unless your room is not full at the time. There’s one shower and toilet to share between the 4 of you. The room is comfortable but not intended for you to hang out in. Just for sleeping. When it’s hot you sleep with the door open which means spraying insect repellant before climbing into bed.

It took me quite a while to get to sleep on the first night. Mostly because of the bugs and Goofy the dog climbing into bed with me and resting his head on 75% of my pillow. To fit into the single bunk bed with him I had to sleep on my side against the wall with my arm around him. Yes, we spooned.

Wednesday – Day 1 of volunteer work

First day! I was a last minute addition to the Quarantine team which meant starting work around 5:45am. I arrived at the barn early and sure enough the other volunteers were there getting started. The early morning shift in Quarantine is almost always preparing the milk, feeding the baby rhinos (currently Faye and Leo), cleaning their bottles and updating their files, removing dung and soiled teff (mostly from urine) from their living area known as the ‘night pen’ and putting in fresh teff. Little did I know at this point that shovels and wheelbarrows were going to be my new best friends. Also, unfortunately when feeding the babies you need to limit your interaction as the end goal is to release them back into the wild. They are so beautiful it’s hard to contain yourself.

More details on how to make the milk:

  • add the ingredients (often milk powder, probiotics, glucose and other ingredients as required) into their containers as per the whiteboard for each rhino
  • add hot water to each container
  • mix the ingredients using a whisk and spatula to remove any remaining powder from the edges
  • use a funnel to pour the milk into 2L bottles
  • fill the bottles with water ensuring a lukewarm or slightly warm result which is how it would have been from their mother
  • put the teets onto the bottle where the cap usually goes

Feeding them is the most rewarding of course as they gulp down their milk in a matter of seconds. Leo unfortunately has not yet learned how to suckle so he takes a bit longer. This means having to slow Faye down so that when she runs out of milk, she doesn’t bully Leo as he is finishing his. It also means having to squeeze the bottle and blow it back up when there’s no air left to squeeze. Yep, the image in your mind is correct. You literally have to wrap your lips around the same teet as your rhino friend. But I’m not going to complain about ‘kissing’ Leo. He’s very handsome.

Also rewarding is ensuring they have a clean space to get stronger in. My contribution on day 1 at an hour I don’t see too often was filling a bag with fresh teff from the barn, laying down fresh teff inside the night pen, feeding them and cleaning their bottles (literally 2L soft drink bottles) and utensils. Faye and Leo are quarantined due to recently arriving at Care For Wild, the stress and health concerns that come with being a recently orphaned rhino, the need to build strength and gain weight and having yet to be introduced to the other rhinos.

Another volunteer and I then got into the back of the ute with the milk bottles prepared for Sibeva. I bet you’re now wondering who Sibeva is… Sibeva is another baby rhino recently moved to the other quarantine area of Care For Wild with older and much larger rhinos. Her move has been successful and she even has a surrogate mother. Sibeva came to Care For Wild as an orphaned rhino, found lost on a private game reserve with a gun shot wound on her side. This has healed well. Poachers. Need I say more. The other rhinos are in Quarantine due to a tuberculosis risk, identified at Kruger National Park where they were transported from.

Imagine the same ‘milk bottle’ routine at 5 OTHER times during the day (9am, 12:30pm, 3pm, 6pm & 9pm) for Faye and Leo. Yep, they drink 26L of milk a day! For now at least. Sibeva on the other hand has 3 feeding times per day and drinks a total of 24L of milk per day.

I heart Leo

At this second Quarantine area with Sibeva and the quarantined larger rhinos, we had more of the same cleaning to do. Dung and teff. With 37.6 degrees celsius showing on the thermometer, we were sweating as we shovelled, raked and pushed the wheelbarrow back and forth from the dumping spot. Once it was clean we were able to spread the teff out along the wall for easy access by all rhinos and add the lucern and pellets on top. Thankfully the cleaning is only done once per day in the morning.

Breakfast at 9am was rewarding. I chose scrambled eggs on toast and a coffee. Afterwards we had a team meeting and our task for the morning (kind of like a second morning?!) was mango picking. The purpose of the task was primarily to remove the rotten mangoes from the ground so the rhinos did not eat too many and get sick, though we managed to pick a few bags of good mangoes too. Yum.

After the 12:30pm feed for Faye and Leo it was lunch time. Chicken nuggets and salad. Soon after clearing up our dishes and making a cup of tea there was a thunderstorm. It reminded me of the storms back home in Australia. The thunder was LOUD and almost immediate after seeing the lightning bolts. Right above us. And it was SO windy! We had to move everything inside the communal stone house and make ourselves comfortable there until it passed.

The rest of the day went like this:

  • 3:15pm – nap
  • 4:30pm – prepare milk for Sibeva
  • 5pm – feed Sibeva
  • 6:30pm – dinner (beef stew)
  • 8:30pm – thunderstorm number 2 for the day
  • 9pm – bedtime

Tried a marula fruit today! And not sure if it’s because of thunderstorm 1 and/or 2 but we do not have any power in our rooms tonight. Phone light shower anyone?

Thursday – Caring for the rhinos in Thor team

It was another 5:30am start and I had my routine down pat. Already wearing my t-shirt for the day to bed, I just needed to put on shorts, socks, shoes, sunscreen and insect repellant and grab my gloves and water bottle. Sadly my shoes were wet inside and squelched with every footstep. They were on our room balcony during the thunderstorm. Our tap water was also brown from being well and truly stirred up.

Today I joined the Thor team. There are 3 teams for volunteers to be part of – Thor, Quarantine and Cats. I’d already spent a day in Quarantine and aside from looking forward to going back (if that makes sense?), I was excited about caring for the cats too.

Thor team

It was an exhausting morning shovelling dung (called ‘masimba’ in Zulu which translates to ‘crap’), wheeling the dung and soiled teff outside the boma in a wheelbarrow and emptying it into the designated area. But we joked about it being like boot camp and I immediately thought of all the positives that came along with that, other than of course a clean area for the rhinos to return to. The larger rhinos get released into the reserve in the morning which allows us to clean their bomas.

The feeding schedule for the 4 baby rhinos is 6am, 9am, 12pm, 3pm, 6pm and 9pm. In the Thor team if your name is on the board to feed for the day, you feed at all 6 times.

After breakfast at 9am, we had a team meeting at 10am though this time the Volunteer Coordinator showed us some videos for training purposes. There’s no set training program here once you arrive and you need to be able to speak up and ask questions, observe others and learn quickly. You’re always under supervision and it doesn’t take long to pick it up.

We had spaghetti bolognaise and salad for lunch, perfect fuel for our upcoming bush walk. It was a last minute idea but a decent turn-out with at least 8 people ready to set out on an adventure. We were given a lift in the back of the ute to the point where the vehicle could go no more. It didn’t take long before we arrived at the top of a hill and were presented with a beautiful view of the mountains. A bit further along the track we saw what looked like giraffe hoof-prints and we were excited about the possibility of seeing a giraffe or any other animal for that matter.

But instead we spotted a very steep hill and the others wanted to climb it. I’m talking steep-steep, right next to an electrified fence. Knowing my limits and how unfit I still was compared to everyone else, I joined them for part of the climb then took a seat as they continued. I was glad to hear I didn’t miss out on much at the top. And I was glad they weren’t gone for too long as I was by myself and nervous about the thought of certain animals popping out of the bush to say hello!

We got back from the bush walk just after 3pm so instead of helping with the feed, I had a nap. Some of the girls spent the time upgrading the bush babies into a larger cage. Ever seen a bush baby before? The animal that comes to mind to compare them with is a possum but they are smaller and have tiny monkey-like hands with fingernails just like ours!

After the 6pm feed I hitched a ride back to the stone house in the ute and had a shower, dinner (chicken, rice and salad), played some Cards Against Humanity and went to bed around 9pm.

Friday – First FULL day of volunteering

A night sky full of stars, fresh air, the smell of citrus and eucalyptus and a comfortable seat in the open-air safari vehicle. The 9pm feed was shaping up to be a pleasant experience! Until we saw the snake. Oh yes a very large python wriggling his way slowly across the path we wanted to drive on. We were headed towards the bomas to feed the 4 babies and I’m now EXTRA glad we didn’t have to walk down. The last bottle feed for the day is 9pm.

So Friday was my first full day, starting at 5:30am with Goofy the dog walking me down to the bomas for the first bottle feed of the day at 6am. Once we’d washed up the bottles we got the opportunity to feed the nyala and duikers some fruit and pellets. I know you shouldn’t have favourites but the nyala has THE most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen on any animal or human. And is so gentle! They all are. It’s a great way to start the morning. My other tasks for the morning included scooping out 10kg of dry feed, cleaning the bomas and other random tasks like helping empty and refill the large water troughs.

After the 12 o’clock feed I was lucky enough to get a bit closer to hippos Emma and Molly. When they’re out of the water they’re often grazing on the grass right near the boundary fence next to the road we take to the bomas. Walking back from the bomas is tiring, especially as it’s uphill and this time underneath the rays of the hot midday sun, but we were grateful because we could walk right next to Emma and Molly. Emma is the older and much larger hippo with what looks like very strong teeth! Molly is the younger, smaller hippo.

Game drive

The adventure on offer today was a ride through the reserve in the open-air safari vehicle to see the black rhinos. There are 2 of them but they must’ve had a good hiding spot because we could not find them. On the way back, one of the volunteers felt what the electric fence was like when she got zapped locking up the gate. Ouch!

Pizza was on the menu for dinner with a side of salad. I learned how to use the washing machine for the first time and turned the railings outside our room into a clothes line. We played Cards Against Humanity again and I am still yet to win.

Saturday – Thunderstorm Number 3

I didn’t have to arrive at the bomas until 7am today so had time for a coffee, buttermilk rusk and a chat before walking down the hill. It was another HOT day. The larger rhinos were let out into the reserve earlier today so the early morning crew had already started cleaning the bomas. The tasks were the same as yesterday though today worms were noticed in their dung so we scrubbed and sterilised all the shovels, rakes and wheelbarrows.

With an extra helper today in the Thor team, I didn’t need to do the midday feed. Instead I had kitchen duty! This means putting all the dry dishes away, preparing lunch (sandwiches – easy) and cleaning up afterwards. It’s an easy job considering everyone is expected to clean their own dishes anyway. And now that I’ve done it I won’t have to do it again until next weekend! There are staff here during the week that take care of kitchen duties.

During the 3pm feed, the third thunderstorm I’ve experienced here so far rolled in. The sky was black and the clouds looked fierce. We made it back to our accommodation just in time to rescue our shoes and washing from getting soaked. In the process I felt the floor shaking beneath me from the thunder. Despite making the experience sound like a bad one, I love thunderstorms. Especially in a setting like this with rolling green hills. And because it helped to cool the temperature down!

Tonight we had a ‘braai’ for dinner (South African version of a BBQ). After the first round of food we tried a ‘braai brekkie’ which is very much what it sounds like, a toasted sandwich you might eat for breakfast. This one, cooked on the BBQ, was made with cheese, tomato and onion. Pretty tasty! After a cup of tea and a chat, it was time for bed. I’ve got another full day tomorrow from 5:30am until 9pm!

Sunday – Meeting meerkats Rufus and Timon

With another full day in Thor team, I was up and ready to go at 5:30am. Just to recap what a full day in the Thor team looks like:

  • 5:30am prepare milk
  • 6am feed the baby rhinos, update their individual files
  • 6:30 – 9am shovel dung and soiled teff into wheelbarrows and remove it from the boma; prepare the dry food for later, clean and refill their water troughs
  • 12 midday as per 6am
  • 3pm as per 6am and put out the dry food in preparation for the return of the rhinos to the bomas
  • 6pm as per 6am
  • 9pm as per 6am

I noticed the guards being trained this morning as I pushed the wheelbarrow out the gate and along the road to the dumping area. I didn’t want to interrupt them but as it was continuing on, I politely excused myself as I manoeuvred the wheelbarrow between them. Everyone is very friendly here.

After lunch, one of the other more experienced volunteers took a couple of us for a walk to see the ferrets and meerkats for the first time. We immediately fell in love! There are 2 ferrets and 2 meerkats in separate areas. They crawled up into our laps and the meerkats stood up like they do in the wild to get closer to your face. You need to apply tick repellent before you visit them because of the long grass in their area. To get back to the stone house, we crossed the bridge and walked along the road to avoid walking through more long grass. I still managed to get a few ticks crawling on me that I flicked away before they could make themselves at home on my body.

One of the ferrets

To avoid contaminating the bomas where the rhinos are after visiting the ferrets and meerkats, we had a shower. At the 9pm feed we noticed the larger rhinos giving themselves a mud bath and a good ol’ scratch on whatever they could. It’s nice to see them like this. The baby rhinos on the other hand had diarrhoea today which was noticeably running out of their backside. To try and improve it, we gave them an extra ingredient in their milk for the rest of the day. Fingers crossed.

Monday – Switch to Cats team

Having nearly slept through my very quiet alarm, I had just enough time to get ready and have a coffee before walking down to the bomas for a 7am start. We had the pleasure of passing 2 giraffes as they grazed. GREAT start to the morning!

It was the usual routine this morning with the rhinos in Thor team but help was needed on the Cats team so I volunteered. This meant that at 11:30am instead of heading down to the bomas, I was heading to the barn where food is prepared for the cats and other animals like hippos, owls and tortoises. The cats include serval, ferrets, meerkats and lion. I couldn’t wait to meet them all. But it is tough if you’re not into cutting up chunks of meat with a butcher’s knife. Which I was NOT.

The amount of food at lunchtime for the cats is much less than in the morning and night. Great time to learn from the more experienced volunteer. It was just the 2 of us and that’s really all you need. There is also a team supervisor that permanently works with the cats and other animals in the Cats team and therefore knows them well. He is always present when feeding the lions and hippos.

The serval is beautiful. But understandably hiding in a corner and hissing at me. Her name is Sapphira and it was my first time meeting her. It didn’t help that the grass was being cut nearby, a noise I’m sure made her feel uncomfortable. I gave her space and left quickly, vowing to get to know her better over the next few days. We continued on to feed the ferrets and meerkats. These are the little guys I met yesterday afternoon. After feeding them and letting them investigate me, we refreshed their water and moved on.

The serval was the only one that didn’t eat her breakfast so we had to take her full dish back to the barn. Covered in ants. To record how much she didn’t eat, we had to weigh it on the scales. In the meantime, they were about to feed the 2 hippos so I quickly joined them as they turned off the electrified fence and entered the hippo enclosure. Emma the older one had her mouth WIDE open waiting for her food. Emma and her shadow Molly were getting leftover salad, pellets, teff and lucern. They walked along behind the other volunteer and our supervisor to the area where their food was placed. Then we topped up their water. Next was cleaning up all the bowls, knifes, cutting board and buckets. And we were done!

Today was also the first opportunity we had since arriving to take a trip into town. Instead I gave another volunteer some money and an order of Top Deck chocolate (about 15 rand). Can’t wait until they get back!

Tuesday – Full day on Cats team

Last day of January 2017 and I’m spending it cutting up tomatoes and lettuce for tortoises. Next was getting the teff, lucern and pellets ready for hippos Emma and Molly. Before getting a chance to cut up delicious chicken necks, the team supervisor asked me to help rake up some of the freshly cut grass for the hippos into a large white bag. I should mention that the other person in the Cats team had gone into town today so I was on my own with the supervisor. Bit of a lonely job though the other volunteer will be back later. And I have the company of the cats, tortoises and hippos this morning!

Hippo Emma’s BIG open mouth

A day in the life of the Cats team looks something like this:

  • 6:30am prepare food for the tortoises, hippos and cats (serval, meerkats, ferrets and lions if needed)
  • 7am feeding time! Today the tortoises looked happy about their vegetable breakfast, the serval was still unsure about me and the ferrets and meerkats scratched at my shoes and climbed onto my lap! The lions were okay for now after their impala (antelope) yesterday. And Emma the hippo had her mouth wide open for her meal!
  • 7:30am – 9am random tasks like raking up freshly cut grass for the hippos
  • 12 midday feeding time for the cats and hippos
  • 4pm feeding time for the cats, hippos and owls

Then freedom! My favourite part of the day was definitely entering the hippo area to feed Emma and Molly. After turning off the electrified fence, I climbed over with buckets of pellets and leftover bread. My supervisor had the bag of teff and lucern. Emma and Molly trotted along happily behind us and as we walked slightly downhill I started to panic at her pace and size. The supervisor asked her to stop and she did. Perfect opportunity to put the food in their tyre size bowls and be on our way. I was so excited to climb out that I almost tripped over the electric fence wire hanging between the wooden fence palings.

My second favourite part of the day was a spontaneous decision to climb the mountain next to the stone house to see the sunset. It only took a few minutes to climb and it was 100% worth it. Tonight we had cupcakes for dessert as an early birthday for one of the volunteers and a goodbye to another.

Wednesday – Feeding the lions

ROAR. Other than our alarms, the first sound of the day was the roaring of the lions. Lucky for them we had the green light to feed them in the morning (changes depending on if they’ve had a fresh impala or similar the day before) and took the opportunity to clean out and refill their water. Feeding the hippos, tortoises and various cats was the same as usual this morning.

With the Kruger day trip tomorrow, I was driven into town around 10am to get 1200 rand cash out of an ATM along with two other volunteers. It was nice to have a coffee and do a bit of shopping while we were there! Oh and eat something different for lunch! At Care For Wild the food is good though it is the same on rotation each week. Before leaving the shopping centre I quickly went into Pick n Pay for the regular items fellow volunteers ask you to buy – chocolate and cola.

I was back in time for the afternoon feed then enjoyed a shower, rest and chat with the other volunteers at the stone house. Being on the Cats team allows you to rest from around 4pm onwards. A nice change from other days feeding baby rhinos until 9pm.

Before dinner (beef stew), we handed over our 1200 rand cash to the Volunteer Coordinator for Kruger tomorrow and signed the indemnity form. Excited! And just when you thought 9pm was an early night, we went to bed even earlier tonight knowing we had Kruger in the morning / middle of the night. It was such a hot night! Definitely a ‘door open’ kind of night so I sprayed plenty of insect repellent and drifted off to sleep.

Thursday – Kruger National Park Safari

Just imagine. It’s 3:40am. Your alarm has just gone off and there’s no running water. You packed your bag the night before and walk like a zombie to the meeting point in the clothes you intentionally slept in so you didn’t need to change in the morning. It’s cold and you’re wearing 2 jackets in a place you normally wear none. But you’re off to Kruger National Park! Kruger! But first things first, a bumpy ride in the Viewer (open safari vehicle) to the main gate to get picked up by Nhongo Safaris. The stars were still beautiful at this time of morning and we drove past sleepy rhinos laying on the grass.

The overall journey to Kruger National Park took about 2 and a half hours. We switched vehicles along the way at a service station and got comfortable in our safari vehicle for the day. Blankets were provided and we still needed them as the sun came up from the other side of the mountains. The views during the drive were stunning, particularly the low fog covering the mountains. As we got closer to Kruger we saw school kids walking together in uniform and locals lined up to catch the public bus to work.

Despite Kruger being as famous as it is, I really didn’t know what to expect. There were six of us from Care For Wild and 2 of us had been before. All I knew was we were looking for the Big 5 which are elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and buffalo. By the end of the day at 4pm we saw 4 of them. All except the leopard which apparently is less sighted than the others. But we had SUCH a great day! The animals we saw included the 4 above and giraffe, kudu, impalas, a leopard tortoise, warthogs, baboons, steinbok, water buck, klipspringer, vervet monkey, ox pecker bird, European roller bird, lilac-crested roller bird, other birds I can’t remember and a random lizard sunning himself on a high rock.

Favourite moments of the day were seeing:

  • the rhinos roaming free in the park and across the road in front of the safari vehicle
  • the lions mating for all of a few seconds which apparently they do every 15 to 25 minutes for 4 to 5 days at a time
  • the elephants playfully fighting with each other using their tusks and trunks then walking off into the distance together
  • the warthog backing into the tunnel underneath the road, ready to take on predators

It was sad to hear that around 600 rhinos were killed in Kruger National Park by poachers last year in 2016. That’s almost 2 rhinos per day. It was good to hear however that in rhino dense areas they use helicopters for proactive and reactive surveillance. Big job particularly seeing as Kruger National Park is 80km long at its widest point.

Oh! Another favourite moment of the day was trying a local South African beer called Castle Milk Stout. It’s a dark beer and it was SMOOTH. First and probably only beer I’ll have in South Africa!

Friday – Last day on Cats team

Today instead of joining the Quarantine team (rhinos) I stayed on the Cats team. I mean, who wouldn’t want to butcher up meat and have it flick onto your face and clothes every now and then? Come to think of it, I don’t even cut the meat at home if I don’t have to! Just goes to show if you have to do it, you’ll do it. There were even dead rats in the freezer today to manoeuvre around! Actually, I stayed on the Cats team to show 2 other volunteers what they have to do. Tomorrow I’ll be back to feeding baby rhinos Faye, Leo and Sibeva.

At 10am we had a team meeting in the barn. The second meeting I’ve been to since I arrived. We officially changed teams around for the next week and took note of our kitchen duty roster for the weekend. There were lots of ideas thrown around for activities to do on the weekend so looking forward to something different over the next two days.

Favourite moment of the day HAS to be feeding hippos Emma and Molly. Emma opens her mouth big and wide for her food and Molly quietly follows Emma wherever she goes. They’re actually quite cute but don’t be fooled! They can be dangerous when they want to be. Remember they’re wild animals. This is not a petting zoo.

Early night tonight. Still recovering from the 3:30am start yesterday. How different my Friday night would be back in London.

Saturday – Weekend fun

Weekends here are ALMOST like your weekends at home. For example maybe you’ve done some housework so that you have the rest of the day to yourself. Here, we’ve done our usual routine in the morning – feed the baby rhinos and clean the bomas. We’ve even given the barn a spring clean. The rest of the day is OURS! Well except for baby rhino feeding times.

From the Quarantine team daily schedule I fed Sibeva in the morning and 5pm, and the other babies Faye and Leo at 3pm and 9pm. Just like your weekend where you might take a trip to the beach, we hitched a ride in the back of the ute to our ‘beach’ after the 5pm feed. This beach is more like a small river, its edges lined with reeds. But still relaxing to look at, sit by and skim rocks on. Definitely going for a swim next time.

Tonight we enjoyed Debonairs pizza and drinks at the communal stone house. A nice reward for the week. We each pitched in 200 rand which is about £12GBP or $20AUD.

Sunday – Day 3 in Quarantine team 

So far I’ve worked in Thor team (rhinos, duikers and nyala) for 4 days, Cats team (lions, meerkats, ferrets, serval, owls, hippos and tortoises) for 4 days and the Quarantine team (rhinos) for 2 days. Today is day 3 in the Quarantine team. I took one for the team and did the early morning feed at 6am which meant getting up around 5:15am and mixing milk and getting fresh teff ready from 5:30am.

Being Sunday, we had bacon and eggs for breakfast. I even made myself walk up the dreaded hill instead of getting a ride in the back of the ute to REALLY deserve it. It was another hot day. It felt like at least 35 degrees.

A day in the life of the Quarantine team currently looks like this:

  • 5:30am prepare milk and fresh teff for the night pen
  • 6:00am feed Faye and Leo
  • 6:15am clean the night pen
  • 6:30am prepare milk for Sibeva
  • 7:00am feed Sibeva
  • 7:15am clean the bomas
  • 8:30am prepare milk
  • 9:00am feed Faye and Leo
  • 12pm, 3pm, 6pm and 9pm feed Faye and Leo
  • 12:30pm and 5pm feed Sibeva

Between the Quarantine team we organise who does what feeding times during the day. I had kitchen duty at lunch time so I missed the midday feeds to organise feeding ourselves. We had beef burgers. Easy.

After the 5pm feed we visited the ‘beach’ for half an hour for a swim. The water temperature was perfect after being out in the hot sun. Along the way we saw a large red roman spider and I feel like now more than ever I’m constantly scanning the ground for them before each step.

Tonight we celebrated a birthday for one volunteer, a goodbye for another leaving the next day and generally the remainder of the weekend. Chocolate cupcakes were on offer and I figured we were celebrating as a team so how could I say no?

Monday – All the different things…

What different things can I tell you about today? Well quite a few actually! Other than the usual ‘day in the life of’ the Quarantine team, this happened:

Morning:

  • saw two giraffe on our drive to turn on the water pump
  • pushed the car from behind to help get it started again after the engine refused to start
  • team meeting with Petronel, the passionate and inspirational owner of Care For Wild, encouraging us to really pick up on the behaviour of each and every rhino (learned today that adult rhinos drink around 70 litres of water per day!)
  • trip to town for a REAL coffee and something different for lunch – Mugg and Bean

Afternoon:

  • saw Emma the hippo getting all excited, making happy noises and head movements towards the man who helped raise her
  • two new tortoises arrived and one of them instantly got ‘friendly’ with one of our resident tortoises
  • a cow was cut into pieces and fed to the lions (I opted not to watch)
  • the rain fell onto the roof as we went to sleep

Tuesday – Weighing baby rhinos

Really starting to feel fit now! Even after an early morning start and cleaning the bomas, another volunteer and I walked up ‘the hill’ twice today. And timed it using an app! Five minutes and 33 seconds was our best time.

The REAL challenge today was weighing baby rhinos Faye and Leo. I’ll give you a few seconds to imagine how this might work in your mind… To start with it requires a scale. A LARGE scale. Lucky for me I wasn’t involved in moving this scale that was now located in their night pen. What I had to do along with several other volunteers was encourage one rhino to step on the scale and encourage the other rhino away from the scale. Being our first attempt and looking back we could have definitely done it differently but we got there. Faye weighed 281kg and Leo 299kg. Using milk to encourage them to where we need them adds to their weight so we were tasked with weighing them again tomorrow and finding an average.

Other than the usual daily routine, I napped in the afternoon, finished my book (“First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung about the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, fitting seeing as I was there a month ago!), toasted marshmallows on the fire with new volunteers and was the first person to be shown a snake by one of the workers looking for another staff member to work out what to do with it.

During the night our room buddies that had been at the project for a few months were sleep talking. It wasn’t the first time, but this time I remembered what they said and even saw hand movements. Denkavit, one of the ingredients for the baby rhino milk was mentioned and I couldn’t help but think that 3 weeks is definitely enough time here for me!

Wednesday – Feeling hot hot hot

Did I mention it gets hot here? Today was another scorcher. Honestly if you’re not interested in working and sweating under the hot African sun, volunteer during the cooler months. The hot and humid weather really saps the energy out of you. It stormed later in the afternoon (thunderstorm number 4 in my 2 weeks so far) which finally helped cool it down.

Today I got up around 5:15am to get to the barn by 5:30am. It was my turn again to do the early morning feed for baby rhinos Leo and Faye. This morning we also helped with cleaning out their night pen. No time for a coffee break today. Once we were done it was time to head down to the bomas to feed baby rhino Sibeva, clean the bomas, prepare the dry food and clean and refill their water troughs. At 9am we fed Faye and Leo again, cleaned their bottles, updated their files and had our own breakfast. With no coffee break earlier or chance for a snack I was pretty excited about breakfast.

At 10am we had a team meeting in the barn. The topic of conversation were the behaviours observed yesterday of the four baby rhinos in Thor team. They recently started grazing outside their boma with the older rhinos in a larger reserve area. To ensure they are happy and well in their new environment, it is important to understand how they are behaving. The two observers gave us an update on who grazed the most, who slept the most, how they got along with the others etc.

Next task: one group had to pick up and move rocks against a fence and the other had to shovel a ute tray full of dirt to fill an area at one of the gates. I was in the ‘other’ group because it was in the Quarantine area. Thankfully it only took about half an hour then we walked up the hill to the barn. From our timing yesterday of 5 minutes and 33 seconds, it took us 30 seconds longer today in the heat and lacking energy.

Time to feed the babies again and weigh them for the second day in a row. It was much easier today with Faye stepping onto the scale first and allowing us to get a reading before Leo joined her. Faye weighed 283kg and Leo weighed 303.8kg.

Lunch time! Carbs to replace those that we used in the first half of the day – macaroni cheese and salad. And our physical activity for the day was not over! Our next task as a full group was to weed the pathway between the barn and the night pen. Not so bad with 24 hands. The next task was much harder – getting bales of teff off the back of a truck and into the barn and bomas. Sounds easy but they are HEAVY. Today was particularly full to get the place looking ‘spick and span’ before a visit from a sponsor. You can become a sponsor too and donate as little or as much as you’d like.

Three o’clock – are you into the routine yet reading this blog? Yep – time to feed the babies again. With other Quarantine team members taking on the remaining feeding times for the day, I was finished! Time to shower and rest. And that I did, falling asleep to the sounds of the sky tearing apart (thunderstorm). The only energy used until bedtime was walking to the stone house for dinner and learning a new card game – Drug Dealers and Cops.

Thursday – The difference between black and white rhinos

With another night of fellow volunteers talking in their sleep and EARLY morning alarm clocks constantly being snoozed, I was feeling a bit worse for wear. I wasn’t required until around 6:45am which would normally mean a small sleep in but not today! So I got up and had a coffee and rusk to avoid making the same mistake I did yesterday.

Believe it or not it was another hot day. I was wearing shorts I’ve not worn here yet because they WERE slightly too small. Perhaps I’ve lost weight? Or it could just be that early morning skinny feeling.

The tasks I was involved in today were:

  • 7am: introducing another volunteer to Sibeva for her first feed of the day in the bomas
  • 7:15 – 9am: clean the bomas
  • 10:30am: sort the new bales of teff in the barn into good and bad piles because of mould
  • 12pm: find Sibeva in the fenced reserve area with the larger rhinos and give her the milk bottles
  • 2pm: check the teff in the Quarantine bomas for mould
  • 2:30pm: load up the ‘bad’ teff from the barn into the trailer along with the rest from the bomas
  • 3pm: feed Faye and Leo

Baby rhinos Faye and Leo

At 10am we had some interesting and informative training on the differences between black and white rhinos. Out of the many rhinos here at Care For Wild, only 2 of them are black. So, what are the differences? Do you know? Some include:

  • black rhinos are more aggressive than white rhinos
  • black rhinos have teeth in the front and back of their mouths, white rhinos only have back teeth
  • black rhinos have two horns of a somewhat similar length, white rhinos have one small and one long horn
  • black rhinos graze on shrubs and trees whereas white rhinos graze on grass
  • black rhinos have a straight tail pointing upwards when they’re ‘emotional’ and white rhinos have curled tails
  • white rhinos have ears like a donkey, taller and thinner whereas black rhinos have wider and more round ears
  • white rhinos have their young in front of them so they can see them whereas black rhinos often have them behind them so they can clear the thicket ahead of them first
  • white rhinos have a square jaw whereas black rhino have a more oval pointed jaw
  • white rhinos tend to have more of a protruding hump than the black rhino due to their heads hanging low to graze
  • white rhinos have what looks like a sleeve on their shoulders whereas black rhinos do not

Also generally the baby rhinos should outlive us with a life span of 40 to 50 years. What a shame they often don’t.

Tonight I did some washing and enjoyed a cup of tea and a chat in the stone house before going to bed at the usual time of around 9pm.

Friday – Poacher’s moon

With two days of sponsor visits over we were back to normal. Normal is a morning of hard work cleaning the bomas, maybe a task between breakfast and lunch and the rest of the day attending feeding times. I was back on the early morning shift – 5:45am. All worth it feeding Leo. I actually think he’s starting to get the hang of suckling! His jaw even looks stronger and moves the way it should though on his second bottle his jaw action gets a bit sloppy as he gets tired.

At 7am I introduced another volunteer to Sibeva and showed them how and where to feed her. She’s in with the larger rhinos in Quarantine so you have to call her down to the last boma to a special area designed for feeding her.

Baby rhino Sibeva

At 10am instead of a task we had an information session about de-horning the rhinos at Care For Wild. They do this as a ‘necessary evil’ to deter poachers. It’s quite a large operation and requires many people and qualified Vets to administer the drugs. Blindfolds and earplugs are used to reduce stress to the rhinos but it is still a traumatic time for them. The horn is made of keratin which is the same as your nails. And just like your nails their horn grows back which means de-horning every 6 months or so.

I did quite a bit of resting today though struggled in the heat. I fed Faye and Leo again at 3pm and 6pm then had a glorious cold shower. It was Friday so we had a braai and listened to some tunes as we watched the beautiful sunset colours move across the sky. I took a step back in time to my childhood for ‘Friday night chocolate night’ and had 1 Tim Tam courtesy of another volunteer’s stash. It’s the little things.

On the way to bed I noticed the full moon lighting up, well, everything. It was nice to look at particularly as the clouds passed by and were illuminated, but I couldn’t help thinking about the poor rhinos that may fall victim to poachers during this ‘poacher’s moon’.

Saturday – Back on Thor team

Baby rhinos Zac, Jemu, Grey & Spirit

To see baby rhinos Zac, Jemu, Grey and Spirit again before I leave on Tuesday, I swapped teams with another volunteer for the day. Which meant another early morning but it couldn’t be more worth it. I did a final wheelbarrow drop off and left around 8:10am instead of the usual 9am finish to start getting breakfast ready. I was on kitchen duty with another volunteer and we were making pancakes!

Having missed the 9am feed for the baby rhinos, I soon heard from the others that they wouldn’t come to the fence for their milk. This could be for lots of reasons like the grass cutting making the landscape look different, the tractor still inside their area etc. Turns out that rhinos are quite sensitive.  The babies have been going outside their bomas for almost 2 weeks now and today they were definitely distressed about something.

At midday I was there to help feed though again they wouldn’t come for their milk except for Zac. Poor Zac appeared quite stressed at not having the others there with him. He was huffing and puffing and pacing around the boma. Watching him salivate, we were devastated that we had to wait for the other baby rhinos to return before we could feed him. Luckily with a bit of patience and calling for the others, they soon reunited with Zac and all drank their 4 litres of milk each.

Other than feeds at 3pm, 6pm and 9pm, our other task for the day was turning teff over every 30 minutes in the sun to ensure it was dry and that there was no mould. The researcher I met in my first week was back and at the 6pm feed she noticed the high stress levels of the rhinos too. It was the larger rhinos that seemed stressed this time though as the baby rhinos were silently sleeping next to each other in a line.

The day ended for me with feeding Zac at 9pm, admiring the stars in the clear night sky and helping one of the workers jump start one of the vehicles.

Sunday – Town trip

You will never see a group of people more excited to take a trip into town than 7 volunteers living in the bush with cabin fever. Planned for tomorrow, our trip into town happened today instead after our morning cleaning workout and ‘feed’ for both the rhinos and ourselves.

Despite a cinema and nearby pool we opted to stay in the air-conditioned shopping centre and sip our coffees in luxury. At least initially. Then we all split up to do what we needed to do before meeting back at Mugg and Bean for lunch. On my solo adventure I bought a new pair of sunglasses at a shop called Klines for 180 rand which is about £10.

It was such a hot day! Possibly the hottest since I’ve been here. One of the volunteers said they saw the thermometer late in the afternoon reading 46.5 degrees celsius though it was directly in the sunlight. It would explain why when I attempted to have an afternoon nap in the room I was forced out because it was MUCH too hot.

I fed Faye and Leo at 6pm, helped get burgers ready for dinner, did some final washing and went to bed for my last BIG day tomorrow!

Monday – Last day shovelling rhino dung

Being my second last day at Care For Wild, it was my last FULL day as a volunteer. Tomorrow I was leaving early which meant feeding the baby rhinos one last time in the morning before departing. It also meant no more shovelling rhino dung after today which I was secretly happy about. But for today I was still bending, scooping, wheeling and dumping.

With that in mind, I had regular bursts of energy and contributed as much as I possibly could. I also took a moment to myself every now and then to look around and take it all in. What an experience I was having out here in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes I even felt like I was on Jurassic Park (you know, the movie?) and the rhinos were dinosaurs. It was their large piles of dung, slow movement (sometimes) and webbed feet with 3 toes supporting their huge weight that had me feeling like I had stepped back in time.

Who did I feed on my last full day? Faye and Leo at 6am, 12:30pm and 3pm, Sibeva at 12pm and the four babies Zac, Jemu, Grey and Spirit in Thor team (after a shower) at 9pm. These were of course the fun parts of the day. The rest between breakfast and lunch and after lunch were filled with raking grass that had been cut a few days prior into piles to be burnt. Not going to lie, it was tough physically and mentally in the heat with the added heat and smoke from the fire. Think I’ll have the raking blister on my left hand between my forefinger and thumb for another week or so before it heals fully.

The other volunteers who had gone into town came back with the allowed limit of wine and a cupcake mix. It was a special occasion. The volunteer that arrived with me 20 days ago at Johannesburg airport was leaving tomorrow too so it was our combined leaving party. It was the only night I stayed up past 9:30pm (made it until 10:30pm) and let’s just say I’m glad I only had to feed the babies in the morning and not shovel poo.

Tuesday – Bye baby rhinos

I’ve never had to say goodbye to a rhino. It’s a moment you want to last forever. But of course the babies drink their milk in a matter of seconds. Which is why I chose to feed Faye and Leo on my last day. Also I was a sucker for Leo, no pun intended for the way he tries SO hard to suckle at the teet like the other baby rhinos. The moment lasted a few minutes longer because of this and once the last drop of milk was gone, I gave them a quick and selfish kiss to say goodbye and closed the door without looking back.

I will never EVER forget them. The sounds they make, the look in their eyes, the way their skin feels, the way the babies sleep next to each other, the way they eat and drink, the way they walk over to you for their milk, the way they gallop like a horse and the way they play fight with each other using their horns. I’ll never forget the people I met there either. I happily donated my work boots to my new friend and hard-working staff member who will put them to better use than I will in London.

The journey home to London took about 16 hours of travel time plus time waiting around at the airport. ACE booked the shuttle bus with CityBug to Johannesburg Airport (about 3.5 hours) and I booked my own flights with Virgin Atlantic direct to London (about 10.5 hours).

Torn between looking forward to getting back to London and leaving the babies, here’s what I WILL miss the most and WON’T miss the most:

Will: 

  • feeding the baby rhinos
  • seeing Emma and Molly’s heads sticking out of their pond (hippos) and hearing a ‘splash’ at random times during the day
  • working as a team with fellow volunteers
  • eating well and not having access to junk food

Won’t: 

  • tasks like raking grass in a field under the hot sun
  • sleeping in a bunk bed
  • sharing a room with 3 others
  • cold showers (though they were heavenly on some days!)

I guess the question you might be asking me at this point is – would you go back? Would you recommend it to others? The answers are yes and yes. Yes because after getting to know the rhinos, it would be amazing to see them again and their progress. And yes because as long as you’re physically fit, go with the expectations that you’re not there to cuddle the rhinos and every day you’ll be working hard, then you’ll have a life changing experience. Most importantly, your daily efforts and contribution financially as a volunteer will change the lives of the rhinos there too.

For more information visit the ACE website https://www.conservationafrica.net/projects/care-for-wild-africa/

Summary
Three Weeks in Africa Caring for Rhinos
Article Name
Three Weeks in Africa Caring for Rhinos
Description
Blog post written by a volunteer at the largest rhino orphanage and sanctuary in the world. Includes a daily diary, photos and a video showing the volunteers feeding the baby rhinos.
Author
Publisher Name
Hoff to Explore
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