This time last year I was returning from a journey that turned out to be the best decision I ever made. I was planting a vegetable garden for a church, playing with fully-grown cheetahs, holding a crocodile just for fun and teaching kids that glitter is definitely the best colour on the wheel. This time last year I was in South Africa, living by a beautiful world heritage status wetland called St. Lucia.

I never thought volunteering in another country for just two weeks would be so rewarding and life changing. Although this is not my first travel experience, you could definitely say I have the travel bug along with one of my best friends, Jack, who was with me every step of this journey. However, we have something even more than that now. An undying appreciation for what we have and the beautiful world that surrounds us. We’re so excited to continue exploring it!

To begin with VESA (Volunteer Eco Students Abroad) is an amazing company that gives you the opportunity to make a difference and enjoy incredible moments in some of the most amazing parts of the world. Our group was arranged from around sixty people, Australia and New Zealand wide, to work for one week and adventure for one week in South Africa and Swaziland. This is by far the best decision I’ve ever made and I hope to travel with VESA again, as they offer trips to the Amazon and Fiji for similar work and activities.

Group at church grounds

There is a saying in Africa that gets around a lot when the unexpected and amazing occurs- T.I.A or, ‘this is Africa’- and wow was it used a lot. We worked on a rotating roster and changed the type of work we were doing every two days. This included construction, conservation and education work, most of which was done in a village nearby called Khula (Cool-ah).

Construction was the first task for Jack and I to tackle. We were informed that we’d be installing septic tanks at a day care centre, as well as building toilets and creating vegetable gardens for the local church over the next two days. I’ve never mixed so much cement and concrete, dug into the ground so deep, painted buildings so thoroughly or felt so liberated knowing that what I was doing would help so many people.

Church garden

On our first day we worked at the day care centre installing the septic tanks for toilets that would be built by future volunteer groups. Trying to concentrate was made difficult by the adorable children that hung off our every move, it was fascinating to see how curious they were about who we were and what we were doing, and whether we would play with them.

Day two in construction consisted of digging the garden bed at the church site and moving piles of bricks closer to the helpers that were building the toilet blocks. It was incredible to see the finished product at the end of the day; Jack definitely stood up to the challenge and led us all through a hard working day.

After two days of solid work in 40-degree heat outside we were definitely exhausted, but were overwhelmed to see the effort we’d all put in.

When they said education work was part of volunteering in Khula I couldn’t have been happier. I knew this meant we were able to make friends with the children in the village at the local childcare centre (crèche). Sadly, a lot of them were orphans, but this had no impact on their unbelievably positive and happy attitudes to having guests play with them, draw in the sand, throw glitter or tell stories and make up puppet shows. Each morning we would go on walks around the village with one of the leaders, Zine (Zin-aye), to collect the kids who were on school holidays. We would sing songs and welcome anyone who was walking by and soon enough we would go from having five kids to fifty- it was amazing!

Maddie and Jack on a morning walk

On our first day, we went for our walk and had a stop over at Zine’s house to have a look at what the inside of a common house was like in Khula. It was very eye opening- her kitchen was outside! The house was still very lovely on the inside though. This family was quite well off compared to other places we walked past, for example some families had everything in one room, under one roof; whereas Zine had her own bedroom and an inside bathroom, which is considered extremely lucky.

When we returned to the crèche, most of the day consisted of playing games, colouring in and sandcastle competitions. We were also very lucky to watch a puppet show starring ‘Blue’ and ‘Rainbow’, kindly hosted by one of our tour leaders Mel. The kids loved it and laughed the whole way through, which was so enjoyable to see. The kids are amazing; they crave love and affection 24/7 which made our job quite simple.

Playground at the creche

When we fed the kids at lunchtime each day, it provided all of us with a massive wake up call. They’re so hungry all of the time and jumped at the chance for one quarter of a sandwich. It definitely made us wish we could do more for them, so a lot of our group members would go into town and from our own money we would buy them extra food for the next day. It is absolutely devastating to see with our own eyes the effects of poverty and starvation.

One thing I definitely knew I’d experience is attachment. The little friends I made will never be forgotten and I really hope to see them again one day. There was one little girl in particular and her name was Ashesha. However, she didn’t speak English, only Zulu, so we called her “Onesie” because on the first day we met that’s what she was wearing. Soon after we named her, it caught on with the other groups and eventually she spoke one of her only English words “Onesie”. I couldn’t believe it and it made us all extremely happy! I wished I could have brought her home with me!

Maddie and 'Onesie'

When our second day was over I was really sad to leave the kids- especially Onesie. The day played out a lot like the day before with walks, games, songs and colouring in. Except just before we left, we introduced ZUMBA to the kids, which was a lot of fun and very entertaining. It was great to see the little ones dance and have such an exciting time!

The conservation leg of our trip was another exciting prospect; I couldn’t believe the opportunities this trip was providing. On the first construction day we travelled forty-five minutes out of St. Lucia to a cat farm called Endemoni Lodge. Upon arrival we were taken on a tour and introduced to Juba and Moya, two fully-grown male cheetah’s, who we got to snuggle up to, pat and take photos with for an hour or so. Incredible! It is a moment of the trip that Jack and I will never forget! Afterwards we were kindly introduced to the African wild cats, servals, caracals and a few other cheetahs (including one named Autumn, which VESA sponsors).

Jack and Moya

The work we did here involved cleaning the cat’s enclosure with shovels, cutting the grass back with machetes and refilling their water. I might add that this was all done with the animals inside while we worked, so it was quite thrilling as we had to watch for where they were at all times (so they didn’t sneak up behind us!).

Our second day of construction work was carried out at a crocodile farm. As we arrived we had a tour and saw all different types of animals, including dwarf crocodiles, the ‘Croconova’ enclosure, Washeasha (the largest crocodile there- he was HUGE), Perry the second largest croc, deadly snakes and a few alligators. We were able to hold a couple of baby crocs on the tour for some quick snaps too, which was really exciting.

Maddie and baby croc

Our workday here began with helping to construct an abattoir. This involved digging holes, mixing cement, collecting rubble, painting and cleaning croc water. However, the highlight of the day was after lunch when we were able to enter a crocodile pen to collect crocodile eggs from a nest! This was a scary task because we had SEVEN croc eyes watching us from about ten metres away the entire time. It was so thrilling because a few crocodiles became territorial and tried to attack the group (lucky we had a Steve Irwin prodigy on our side to tame them back into the water). Collecting their eggs was for a good cause due to the low survival rate they’re given if they stay with the mother. So gathering them and putting them into an incubator increases their survival chances by about 70%!

This was our last day of volunteer work and the only word I can use for the experience would be ‘liberating’.

At the end of each day, which was usually around 5pm, we would be greeted with a beer and pat on the back for the hard day’s work, a swim in the pool and a lot of fun times that have proved to be some of the best memories Jack and I could ask for. Throughout the week we ventured to nightclubs with water slides, visited night spas for soothing massages and discovered some amazing local food. I couldn’t have asked for a better week, although I was shown soon after that it could at least be matched!

Our week of adventure was highly anticipated by the whole group, we were shown even more of beautiful South Africa, as well as an overnight trip to Swaziland, which was an adventure in itself!

During this week we were treated to a day at Cape Vidal, which is the nearby National Park’s beach. We played beach volleyball and cricket, snorkelled, swam, cooked a barbeque and enjoyed the sun and company of each other. We endured a very eventful safari another day, which involved our jeep being chased by a fully grown lion, a curious giraffe poking it’s head around for a look and a family of elephants coming over to see what the noise was all about. The scenery on this trip was absolutely beautiful too, just to top a great day of discovery off! Other activities during this week included multiple village visits, whether it was to see cultural dances or have our fortunes read by a fortune-teller or ‘Isangoma’. We also had a great time on a croc and hippo cruise as the sun set, which turned into a bit of a party, and we were all very excited to visit Swaziland on our last two days of the trip too.

We crossed the border of Swaziland on our twelfth day in Africa, ready to enjoy shopping at the markets, quad bike riding, horse riding, swimming and one last night with our new friends. We were all very sad to be leaving the next day, but so grateful we’d had this experience.

Group of friends made on the trip

In conclusion, our trip to Africa was unbelievable, unimaginable and unforgettable.Words are not enough to do this trip justice, but I can’t say enough how rewarding and inspiring it was. I met the most amazing people and have made a few friends for life, while bonding an even closer friendship with those I already knew. If you’re looking for a sign or life changing experience, then volunteer work is definitely a great option for you! If I could spend my life doing things like this it would make me extremely happy.

So check it out, you wont regret it. Enjoy your time and learn the true meaning of T.I.A.

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the author

Maddie is currently studying Journalism at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, as well as studying Fashion Business at FBI Fashion College in Glebe. She has been fortunate enough to visit some of the world's most amazing places, whether that's been for volunteer work in the developing world or simply relaxing on a family holiday in the tropics. After graduating this year she will be heading to Canada for six months and then to the UK for a further year and a half. She aims to end up with a career in news journalism or travel writing, however has a vast interest in working with the Ethical Fashion Initiative, helping women in Africa and Haiti earn a living through fashion.