Me brushing one of the sanctuary's rescued cheetahs
A couple of years ago I took the plunge and booked my first volunteer trip in Africa. Not only was I going to be volunteering in a completely alien country to me but I was going to be doing it solo.
I booked to volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary through a third-party website who didn't actually tell me the name of the sanctuary I would be working at. Good research on my part, huh?
As a result, I did zero preparation. I only knew I was going to be around animals as I had seen photos of volunteers cuddling orphaned baboons and taking majestic cheetahs for walks. I also knew it was in Namibia. Other than that nothing. Not even the foggiest clue about whereabouts in Namibia it even was.
In this article I will compile a list of all information I can think of to help you prepare for your volunteering experience - in other words, all the information I really could have done with knowing myself.
Or perhaps you are still debating whether or not to volunteer at N/a'an ku sê wildlife sanctuary and have some questions you'd like answering. I'll try my best to go through everything!
It is worth noting that I volunteered at N/a'an ku sê in 2013, during the sanctuary's early years and before it had really expanded. Therefore there may be slight differences between my experience back then and a volunteer experience today.
If I don't answer your question in this article, you may wish to leave a comment below (I reply to all comments!) or check out some in-depth diary entries from my time here. You can find those here.
Let's get into the juicy details!
- The Volunteer Programme: A Brief Overview
- What does a Typical Day at the Sanctuary Look Like?
- What does a Week at the Sanctuary Look like?
- What Kind of Activities Do You Take Part In?
- Are There Any Additional Optional Activities?
An Introduction to N/a'an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary
N/a'an ku sê is a sanctuary in Namibia based 10,000 hectare nature reserve. The sanctuary is part of the N/a'an ku sê Collection, a series of properties and reserves owned by the N/a'an ku sê Foundation which are dotted throughout Namibia.
The sanctuary opened in 2007 and is run by conservationist Marlice van Vuuren and her husband Rudi van Vuuren. In early 2011, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie partnered with N/a'an ku sê to create the Shiloh Jolie-Pitt Foundation, in honour of their Namibian-born daughter.
Since N/a'an ku sê's formation, it has grown rapidly. Being funded solely by donations, the N/a'an ku sê Foundation has set up a wine estate in the Namib Dessert called Neuras, a tented camp called Kanaan in the remote southern region of Namibia and accommodation in Windhoek. The collection is continually expanding.
It is situated between Namibia's capital city of Windhoek and Namibia's international airport. The journey from the airport to the sanctuary only takes roughly 30 minutes.
This area of Namibia is in fact low risk in terms of malaria, so if you are only visiting the sanctuary on your visit to Namibia, anti-malarial tablets won't be required.
Wildlife Conservation Projects
The sanctuary was set up with the goal to reduce human and wildlife conflict, a prevalent issue in Namibia and in Africa in general.
The sanctuary rescues animals from conflict. The animals may be injured, orphaned or be a 'problem animal' which has been too close to livestock. The sanctuary aims to release animals back into the wild where possible. However, in instances where the injury is too great or the animal has had too much contact with humans, the sanctuary provides a safe haven for them to live the rest of their lives in peace.
Since the sanctuary's foundation, N/a'an ku sê has branched out into offering multiple volunteer programmes which support different causes. Some programmes involve work at a school and others involve work at a clinic.
This guide you are reading is on the wildlife conservation volunteer programme as this is the programme I took part in.
Is N/a'an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary the Right Volunteer Programme for you?
With so many different volunteer programmes available throughout Africa, it's so important that you find one that fits your needs. N/a'an ku sê wildlife sanctuary offers a very versatile programme so there's a good chance it will be perfect but hey, it's good to know more about a programme before booking it!
The Volunteer Programme: A Brief Overview
You can volunteer at the sanctuary for a minimum time of 2 weeks to a maximum time of 12 weeks.
When you sign up to the volunteer programme, you will mainly be based at the main sanctuary with opportunities to go to the other parts such as the Clever Club School, Lifeline Clinic and even volunteer for a period in Neurus wine estate. Optional activities such as volunteering at the school or clinic will only make up a small proportion of your volunteering time.
Your time will be centred around the sanctuary's wildlife. Tasks vary from preparing meals for the animals to taking part in research projects, building and tidying enclosures and walking some of the resident animals. A passion for wildlife is key as you will spend so much time around them.
When you arrive at N/a'an ku sê wildlife sanctuary, you will be allocated to a team with a team leader. There are a couple of different teams - the exact number will vary depending on how many volunteers there are at that given time. When I visited it was apparently the highest number of volunteers in record (70) and so there were numerous teams which consisted of around 6 people each.
There is a rota of jobs that need doing. Each team will to a different job. This is great as it means your days are incredibly varied. The jobs work on a 2-weekly cycle so every 2 weeks the jobs will repeat.
Activities start at 8am and end at 5pm. You can expect to complete 3 activities in a day with a small break in the morning and a larger lunch-break which takes place between 1pm and 2:30pm.
During activities, you can expect to be on your feet for long periods of time, working under the heat of the sun. Some activities are strenuous. During my time there I participated in helping to construct a dirt road (it required a lot of shovelling!).
What does a Typical Day at the Sanctuary Look Like?
Each day is off to an early start. You can expect to wake up at around 7am for breakfast in the communal lapa.
At breakfast you will be told what your jobs are for the day.
Each day consists of 2 or 3 jobs, one or two in the morning and one in the afternoon, separated by a lunch break between 1pm and 2:30pm.
The afternoon job finishes around 5pm. You can then wind down for the evening, eat dinner and have fun with the rest of the volunteers. It's up to you when you go to bed!
What does a Week at the Sanctuary Look like?
Monday through to Friday are classed as the typical working week. On these days your group will partake in a rota of jobs that need completing. The jobs run in fortnightly cycles so each day is varied from the last.
On Saturdays you can expect to take part in a special activity alongside all volunteers. It's impossible to predict what this task will be beforehand. During my 2-week stay I experienced two Saturdays. On the first we cleaned out one of the lion enclosures which involved witnessing the lion's being sedated and then released back into their habitat at the end of the clean. On the second we got to visit the local San village (traditional bushman village) and learn about their ways of life, even witnessing traditional song and dance.
Sundays are rest days. You can either do absolutely nothing at all or participate in some relaxing activities (at an additional cost). These activities include a day exploring Windhoek (Namibia's capital), a day at the sanctuary's luxury lodge (including a dip in the pool and gorging on a luxury buffet!) and much more.
A cheetah at the sanctuary, rescued from life as a pet. Here we were taking part in a 'research' activity and trying to get clear paw prints from the cheetah
What Kind of Activities Do You Take Part In?
The sanctuary offers a range of different activities. Here are some regular activities which you will take part in:
This involves preparing meals for some of the sanctuary's resident wildlife. It isn't the funnest job, but it's essential. You will find yourself mixing and portioning out 'mieliepap', a type of maize porridge and, for the baboon feed you will mix in left-over food too!
This involves patrolling the perimeter of several enclosures, checking for signs of damage, to see if any foliage is growing too close to the fencing (it can interfere with the electric current) and checking the voltage of the fencing. This task involves covering several miles of ground so good levels of fitness are required. It's a great opportunity to see and learn about some of the sanctuary's wildlife which live within the enclosures you are patrolling.
This is one of my favourite tasks! For this job you will walk alongside a wild animal through the wilderness - I'm serious! Exactly what animal you will have the pleasure of accompanying depends on what animals are there for your visit. They could be a cheetah, a caracal, a warthog or a troop of baboons.
During my stay I got to walk 3 different troops of baboons as well as a caracal. The caracal walk was one of my favourite tasks at the sanctuary and not just because of the walk. In this activity you also get to feed them and that is an experience in itself as these cats leap several metres into the air to grab their food!
If you are curious to learn more about the caracal walk, I have an in-depth diary entry detailing my experience which you can read here.
This involves learning about various research programmes that the sanctuary is conducting. In this task you will learn about and set up camera traps, learn about radio collars and tracking as well as hear about some of the sanctuary's live projects which are taking place over Namibia. The sanctuary has successfully released countless animals back into the wild, many of which have GPS collars and so you can learn all about the benefits of the collars and how they help with wildlife conservation
This is another of my favourite activities! This involves hurling hunks of meat into the enclosures of the sanctuary's resident cheetahs, leopards, lions and wild dogs. It's an opportunity to get close to the animals and watch their excitement as they wait for and then grab their food. Your wildlife coordinator will introduce you to each animal and give you their background story.
This activity is pretty much a safari. You will sit in the back of a pick-up truck which drives through the reserve. Your task is to make note of any animal you see. The purpose is to the sanctuary has a good idea about what animals are within their boundaries.
There are many other activities you will take part in, but exactly what they are will depend on what's going on in the sanctuary at the time. For example you may help with the erection of a new enclosure, or help with making a new road. You may build a house for a new rescued animal or create some enrichment items for a new monkey or baboon enclosure.
Are There Any Additional Optional Activities?
There are several optional activities which you can take part in.
Assisting At The Clever Cub School
Taking part in additional activities is rather straight-forward. The staff will tell you what is available and you can put your name down on a list. Additional activities include visiting the Clever Cub School which you can do instead of a regular day activity. You can visit the school a couple of times a week.
Looking After An Orphaned Baboon
You can also volunteer to look after a baby baboon for the night. There's no limit to the amount of times you can do this for. But let me tell you, it's hard work! I tried it for one night and it's certainly a once in a lifetime experience that I'm so glad I got to do. However, it wasn't easy. I learnt that I was not quite ready for motherhood yet!
Volunteering at Neurus Wine Estate
Volunteering at Neurus is something that I sadly didn't get to experience. You can take a week off your regular activities to volunteer here and meet some of the sanctuary's other animals. As it takes a week, I recommend this option if you are volunteering for more than 2 weeks in total at N/a'an ku sê wildlife sanctuary.
Me with an orphaned baboon - on this night I got to be a surrogate mother and look after him
Planning Your N/a’an ku sê Trip Volunteer Experience
So, you've decided you'd like to volunteer at N/a’an ku sê - great! But I'm sure there are many more questions that you may have about organising your trip.
How Long Should You Volunteer For?
I volunteered for 2 weeks and it just wasn't long enough! I got through a full rota at the sanctuary but I truly regret not going to Neurus for a week and remember, the longer you're there, the more you get to see. Activities can vary a lot depending on the day you do it. One day you may have a very calm walk with the caracals, on another they could be stalking something. Also, the weekend activities change too. On my first Saturday, I got to clean the lion enclosure whereas on my second, I got to visit the bushman village and learn about bushman life. Who knows what would happen the next Saturday?
I won't ramble too much here! I'd recommend at least 1 month to fully embrace time at N/a'an ku sê wildlife sanctuary.
Volunteering Solo Vs Volunteering with Friends & Family: Which Is Best?
When I volunteered at N/a'an ku sê, I took the plunge and volunteered solo. I doubted that any of my friends at the time would be interested and I wasn't prepared to miss out on something that I'd always wanted to do so I booked my tickets and stay. Obviously, I was scared, especially in the run-up to the trip. I remember asking myself "what was I doing?" and dreading it. I even rang up the sanctuary the day before double-checking I was booked. However, my mood changed as soon as I arrived. I was greeted by numerous people in the exact same situation as me, volunteering solo. As a result, it was so easy to make friends. Within days, I was chatting to people like I had known them for a while and obviously we had a same common interest as we were all here, which made it so effortless.
There were also several people volunteering with friends and family. They were still able to socialise but I do truly think that volunteering solo allows you to make better friends. I'm also a believer in pushing yourself out of your comfort zone as that's when amazing things can happen.
Lucky, a three-legged cheetah rescued by the sanctuary
N/a'an ku sê Volunteering Packing List
When volunteering at N/a'an ku sê, there are a couple of essentials that you need to take with you.
For information on what clothing to bring, I have a whole article on that here. It really isn't as easy as you might think!
Essentials You Must Take With You
Water Bottle: You will need this! Activities can be tiring and you will be working through the heat. There's a point in the volunteer area where you can top-up your bottle and I recommend doing this before every outing.
Camera: If you could bring just one item, this would be it! There's so many opportunities for amazing photos as you are so close to animals all the time. Plus, who wouldn't want to remember such an amazing experience!
Telephoto Lens: This links in with bringing a camera but you'll definitely want a zoom lens. On some activities, the animals are a little further away and the standard lenses that come with cameras cannot zoom sufficiently enough. I bought a 70-300mm telephoto lens and have never missed a shot since!
Sunscreen: You don't want to burn.
Mosquito Repellant:Sleeping bag: Whilst there are beds, you may wish to have a sleeping bag as well. That way you know it's clean and also in peak-season (May-September), Namibia is freezing at night so having a sleeping bag provides extra warmth.
Back-pack: An essential for carrying around all your must-have items on activities.
Money: Meals are included within your volunteer package but if you want to buy anything else such as additional food and snacks from the shop or even clothing, you'll need money. Additional activities also cost extra. Remember, currency in Namibia is the Namibian Dollar but they also take South African Rand.
Whilst that is all my specific information on volunteering at N/a'an ku sê, you can find tonnes more information about Namibia in general such as what injections to have, safety in Namibia and much more in my ultimate guide to Namibia.
I hope you enjoyed this article!
My Experiences in Namibia
If, like me, you like to read about personal experiences, learning all those ins and outs of a country, then you may wish to check out my blog posts of each day I spent in Namibia. There you can find all my honest thoughts and fears and in-depth information on what I liked and what I didn't like. Check it out!