In 2010 we launched Samara’s Volunteer Programme. Geared towards eager learners of all ages, and particularly students and school leavers, the programme was developed with a strong focus on research and hands-on involvement in the field. Its aim is to demonstrate the hard work that goes on behind the scenes in a game reserve, and to engage the next generation of citizens and decision-makers from all over the world. Our 17 volunteer base is truly international, and particularly popular in South Africa, the UK and Switzerland. The course is UCAS-accredited and endorsed by Professor Graham Kerley, Director of the Centre for African Conservation Ecology at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, and all volunteers receive a signed certificate on departure.
Over the course of any duration between 2 weeks and 6 months, a maximum of 8 volunteers at a time participate in a variety of projects, from cheetah tracking to antelope demographic surveys; soil erosion control to alien vegetation removal; rhino monitoring to learning the tricks of the trade with the Tracker Academy. The emphasis is on work that contributes to the objectives of Samara and its research partners. As such, the programme collaborates with research institutions working on Samara, training and dispatching volunteers to assist with monitoring vervet monkeys (University of Lethbridge), collecting dung samples to test for parasites (Smith College, USA), evaluating the composition of cheetah diets (Endangered Wildlife Trust, South Africa), and assessing the bird species present on Samara (University of Cape Town, Birds in Reserves Project).
Downtime is spent camping in wild olive groves, picnicking, swimming in the river, going on game drives, and hiking to the top of Samara’s mountains, from which the views stretch for 280km. There is also the opportunity to go on weekend excursions, with volunteers travelling to Addo Elephant National Park, Mountain Zebra National Park, and the Garden Route. The programme also engages in community outreach with the Vuyani Safe Haven in Graaff-Reinet, a shelter for orphaned and abused children who have been removed from their parents by the courts or social services. The volunteers visit Vuyani, helping with construction work, building vegetable gardens, and playing with the children, many of whom have been deprived of love and affection since they were born. Several times a year, the programme also organizes environmental education day-trips to Samara, during which the children visit the reserve to swim in the pool, have a picnic, and go on a game drive. The highlight of the year is undoubtedly the Vuyani Safe Haven Christmas Party, held at Samara in early December. We encourage guests, volunteers and friends to donate old toys, books and games, so that the Vuyani orphans might experience a Christmas of love, hope, and presents. For many, it is their first Christmas celebration altogether. 18 Several volunteers have been so touched by their interactions with the Vuyani Safe Haven that, on returning to their home countries, they have raised thousands of rand to support the charity. Their engagement with the Tracker Academy has also proven mutually beneficial – as the trackers impart their knowledge of this disappearing art form, the volunteers provide them with the experience of interacting with guests in English, a great help for their future careers. Our volunteers tend to leave Samara not only wiser about conservation, ecology and the environment, but their horizons broadened and their lives changed, misty-eyed and vowing to return.