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Niels from Germany tells us about his volunteering experiences at the Great White Shark and Big Five Game Reserve projects in South Africa with Travel to Grow. From seeing wildlife up close and learning to dive, to meeting a group of friends for life, he can’t wait to plan his next adventure.

Introduce yourself.

I’m Niels – a 20 year old from Frankfurt in Germany. I love sports, wildlife and exploring the world and want to become a teacher one day. So that’s why I decided to volunteer in South Africa with Travel to Grow.

Why did you want to volunteer at these projects in South Africa?

After I finished school, I knew I wanted to have a totally new experience, so while my friends spent their summer lazing at the swimming pool and hanging out, I spent my time earning money to put towards a trip abroad! I fell in love with marine animals when I visited SeaWorld Orlando with my granddad as a two-year-old. Fascinated ever since, I read books and watched every documentary I could, gradually realising what SeaWorld was doing to these creatures. So when I saw Travel to Grow’s ethical Great White Shark project, I knew I had to do it. When I explored Travel to Grow’s website and saw the Big Five Game Reserve project too, I decided to volunteer in both places for some totally different experiences.

Tell us what life was like at the Great White Shark project.

Being a volunteer here comes with less sleep, early alarms and great experiences! I stayed in a shared room in amazing house that had access to a kitchen, living room with TV and billiards, a braai (barbecue), bar room and a small swimming pool in the garden. Every day at the project was different because there were many different activities to help with. As well as helping the marine biologists with their important work, I also escorted guests out on shark cage diving trips and was even invited by the project to try it myself on my first day! I was lucky enough to see a shark while I was in the cage – an experience I would recommend to anyone to get to know these misunderstood creatures a little more. The project’s penguin sanctuary also has opportunities for volunteers, and I also helped with groups going whale watching at Dyer Island. Seeing whales breaching out of the water definitely isn’t the worst job in the world!

What else did you experience during your time at the Great White Shark project?

There were some occasional no-sea-days, when the weather was too bad to go out on the boat. On those days, volunteer coordinators helped us get the most out of our time. I participated in a beach clean-up, took a trip to Hermanus, and generally got to learn more about South Africa’s marine creatures. We also had some fun social occasions, where we had a braai and drinks, went out to dinner or got to know Cape Town a little better. I also had the opportunity to gain my diving certification while hearing the sounds of Southern Right Whales in the background – not something a lot of people can say they’ve done.

What was your most memorable moment at the Great White Shark project?

Sitting at the edge of a cliff with my new friends, while watching the sunset and the blow of the whales. I felt what freedom is. We were a group of people from different places and with different backgrounds who were together and totally connected. I loved it and miss this most after returning home.

What was volunteering at the Big Five Game Reserve like in comparison?

Life was totally different there! This is the wild habitat for many animals as well as the Big Five creatures of rhino, elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard. This means volunteers are not allowed to go out there alone. Every day is full of different tasks, from repairing dirt paths in the reserve to animal counting trips to check on the numbers of each species.

Did you have any unexpected tasks at the project?

We visited a school in a nearby township one day to give them a meal and play with the children. It was an intense experience to see what life is like for so many people in South Africa. It’s an important insight to have when your life experience is so different from this. We complain about trivial things like not having enough mobile data back at home, but here they didn’t even have a real football to play with. Yet we all had a lot of fun together and they treated us to some of their amazing singing and dancing. I definitely think visitors to South Africa should visit a township if they have an opportunity.

What was your free time like at the project?

The game reserve is quite remote, so it’s a totally different rhythm of life compared to being in a city. We spent evenings watching films or playing pool and table tennis. One of my best memories is playing football in the late African sun with the roar of the lions in the background. There are also great weekend trips to do from the reserve, such as visit Plettenberg Bay, or go to Port Elizabeth for city nightlife, shopping and the beach. I loved visiting Jeffreys Bay – a small and lovely surfer town that has a bit of a Californian feeling. It’s a place just to hang out at the beach or do activities such as horse riding, visiting waterfalls and skydiving.

How would you sum up your experience of volunteering with Travel to Grow?

It was the most amazing experience I’ve had during the 20 years I have spent on this great and amazing planet. I got to see animals I’ve only read about in books and met a group of brilliant new friends. I became more open-minded about getting to know other people. I became more independent because I went on the trip by myself. And I fell in love with travelling. It has inspired me to visit other places in the world and do more with my new hobby of diving. I would recommend doing a trip like this to anyone. Go on your own adventure and get your own stories to tell! Experience wildlife and embrace the brotherhood of the volunteer group. I’m just a normal guy from Germany, but I can say I’ve experienced something rare and extraordinary.