My volunteer work at the Zimbabwe Wildlife Orphanage was phenomenal, one of those life-altering experiences that you don’t know how to begin explaining to others. But here’s my attempt: I was picked up from the airport by the owners. Coming from Finland, you can imagine the journey was long and exhausting, but I could not resist asking dozens of questions regarding my work, the animals, and volunteering in Zimbabwe in general.
Upon arriving, I was quickly given a tour of the immediate necessities (what food was available to me, where certain facilities were, the cabin I was living in, etc.)
A little on the place itself: the Chipangali grounds are wonderful. I loved the greenery and general layout. I was happy to see that the cabins were not luxurious, but still comfortable (though the winter nights were extremely cold and the walls in my cabin didn’t even reach the roof, nor did the door really cover the gap cut out for it–all part of the experience, right?). There’s a pool if anyone wants to brave its temperature and an entertainment center where you can watch movies or play darts. Most people tended to hang out in our kitchen. There we would hangout and play games and whatever else. At night, however, a lot of time was spent in front of a bonfire, which makes for some of my better night memories at Chipangali.
The staff managing Chipangali are wonderful people who will see to it that you feel at home and are taken care of (and will push you to make sure the animals are taken care of!) The staff doing all the other work are equally loving and give big smiles if you simply wish them a good morning (though I strongly suggest you learn a few simple phrases in their native language, isiNdebele; in my four weeks there, hearing me speak it never got old for them.)
On the actual program, Sunday afternoon and evenings were free time. Since I arrived on a Sunday, I had the opportunity to start meeting the other volunteers immediately and spent the day after–as Mondays are free days–going to town and getting to know my friends-to-be. Even if there isn’t much to do, Bulawayo still seems lively and has people going everywhere. There aren’t exactly any attractions, but it is neat to see the street market and other local shops. (Make sure to haggle the street sellers real hard. They’ll try to sell you something for $25 and you have to say “No, $1″ and work from there.) Mary’s was a popular place to eat, if not for the cakes, then for the free WiFi. The day after is when all my work really began.
You’re given a more thorough tour regarding the animals and Chipangali in general and, after that, you’re put to work : ) I spent that morning having animal time with an adorable and friendly serval, which I embarrassingly have to admit is a wild cat species I didn’t even know existed prior to my experience in Zimbabwe. You’re assigned to groups, which change every week, for the remainder of your time at Chipangali. Your responsibilities will be rather varied. Being assigned to carnivores can mean cleaning out lion enclosures, helping build enclosures, throwing meat to the big cats, or, if you can brave it, even cutting up a horse, cow, or donkey for the lions to eat (Don’t worry! It’s not alive when it gets to Chipangali!)
Antelope duties will have you cutting up fruits (it’s more fun with a machete), going into the enclosures to retrieve branches (which will later be used to heat up your showers), or helping a staff member carry back huge groups of branches for the antelopes to eat (or, if you’re eager, climbing a dozen meters into trees yourself and being the person to cut them down.) These are only some of the duties.
There are a few categories of duties you could be assigned to on any given day. Baby duties, however, are definitely the most strict. Baby animals have strict feeding schedules and specific instructions for preparing their food. You can never anticipate in advance what or how many babies you will have (though I assure you that you will enjoy so many different species at this wildlife orphanage). When I first arrived, we had an adorable bushbuck named Teak. By the time I had left, Teak was joined by a go-away-bird, a squirrel, and multiple bunnies. Sometimes these animals will actually need to spend the night with you in your cabin, which will have you feeding them throughout the night and ensuring they’re warm at hours as late/early as 3.00. These baby animals are adorable and so sweet to play with, but after a long day’s work, you really do appreciate your sleep : ) I can say easily that my favorite responsibility was taking care of the baby monkeys, Bandit and Terrence.
Less than a year old, they were still being bottle-fed by volunteers. These little ones were so sweet. . . and SO much trouble. They are absolutely mischievous troublemakers. They needed to be walked once a day (meaning you would take them to the farm animal center, let them go, and watch them.) Sounds like great fun, right? It sure was, but mainly on days when you weren’t spending an hour trying to get them back. They will sit on your head, climb on you, maybe even climb in your shirt. . . if you can get them to realize that they’re not allowed to bite you (which they test out with every new person–good luck!)
You’re allowed time off from Chipangali to see other places in Zimbabwe. The staff will even arrange the whole thing for you. During my stay at Zimbabwe, I traveled with a friend to Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The falls were absolutely beautiful and, in addition to the park itself, I went bungee jumping at the bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia and went predator diving (you’re put in a cage and lowered into a pool with crocodiles).
Other activities include the helicopter ride over the falls, the lion walk, the elephant ride safari, and Devil’s Pool on the Zambia side (keep in mind that each activity is pretty expensive and that vacation trips away from Chipangali can end up being a sizable, unexpected cost–but you WILL want to go). After Vic Falls, we went to Hwange and saw lions, crocodiles, cheetahs, wildebeests, springhares, elephants, and a dozen other species on the six safaris we went on.
I also went twice on a safari in Matopos, a national park (once with a staff member and then once with an actual guide–the former is cool, the latter is life-changing.) I saw rhinos and cave paintings and had the chance to visit a village, where I met an 82-year-old chief that told me the tale of fighting a leopard that was eating his livestock (a story he told me while wearing that leopard’s skin some sixty years after the incident.) His stories were incredible and followed shortly by a dance performance by the children of the village. I could not write about this day with enough detail to do it justice, but believe me when I say it was one of the most memorable days of my life.