Seapatrick student Victoria Bushby is still coming back down to earth after spending two incredible weeks working as a volunteer on a wildlife reserve in South Africa.
Victoria signed up to Volunteer South Africa’s Walking With Big Cats programme, which gave her the opportunity to interact with lions, tigers, cheetahs, zebra, giraffes, elephants and even a hyena named Roxy.
Based at Glen Afric Country Lodge, where the BBC TV series Wild at Heart was filmed, volunteers from around the world help Glen Afric’s wardens care for and, if possible, rehabilitate sick and orphaned wild animals.
Victoria, 19, said: “I knew that I would be getting to work with some fantastic wild animals, but I hadn’t realised I would meet so many great people from lots of different countries.”
Victoria’s adventure got off to a shaky start when her flight to Johannesburg was cancelled at the departure gate, she lost her mobile phone, and her luggage was delayed.
“I really missed my bag that first Monday afternoon when I was in the bush shovelling a mountain of elephant poo out of a trailer and didn’t have anything for the shower or any clean clothes,” Victoria said. “Thankfully the other volunteers helped me out. I was really glad to see my bag when it was delivered on the Wednesday afternoon.”
Victoria threw herself into the programme. As well as feeding, exercising and cleaning up after the animals, there were rotas for maintenance work, horseback riding, lion walks and elephant walks.
“We walked in the bush with the lion cubs Nairobi, Malia and Malakai. It was wonderful seeing them run free,” she said. “At 11 months they are already quite big, Malakai’s mane is going to be huge! They were just so cuddly and playful. I did get scratched playing with them so I will have souvenir scars to remember them by.”
There was fun on the elephant walks too, with mother elephant Three, Hannah her baby and young Marty who was adopted.
“I had not realised how big a full grown elephant like Three was going to be. She was huge,” said Victoria. “They are gentle giants but we had to keep our distance when they were moving around as they could have knocked us over very easily.
“Our work included building safer homes for the animals, feeding them chunks of raw meat, and creating mud baths for the elephants. We also built a mongoose camp so they can be released into the wild later.”
Victoria went to bed at night listening to the sounds of roaring lions and territorial hippos.
“I miss getting up in the morning and seeing a random ostrich walk past my door,” she said.
Sadly, one large animal missing was Isabella the rhino. Isabella had lived at Glen Afric for seven years, having been rescued when poachers killed her mother. Three years ago, poachers broke into the reserve’s enclosures and slaughtered Isabella for her horns.
Victoria was at Glen Afric on the anniversary of Isabella’s death, and took part in an emotional memorial for the young rhino. She also joined other volunteers at a shopping centre to highlight the need to protect the rhino from poachers.
The project offered volunteers activities they wouldn’t get to take part in at home. Victoria signed up for ziplining, quad biking, a visit to a monkey sanctuary and a crocodile park, and, most daring of all – a sky dive.
“Skydiving over the African bush was like no other feeling. Free falling for those 47 seconds felt like just 10 seconds. It was brilliant to see South Africa from a very different angle,” Victoria continued.
Stressing the importance of reserves like Glen Afric, she explained: “The work carried out by the staff and volunteers is vital as many of the orphaned and injured animals might not survive if they are not cared for in a safe environment.
“The aim is always to release the animals back into the wild, but for many the reserve becomes their permanent home as they may not survive if released. Lots have lost their natural fear of humans so would be easily poached. Many of the species are endangered and Glen Afric is soon to participate in a rhino breeding project.”
Victoria, a former pupil of New-Bridge Integrated College, is now at Bangor University, North Wales, where she is starting the first year of a degree in Zoology with Animal Behaviour.
“My experience in South Africa has made me even more determined to follow this career,” Victoria said. “I really hope to get back to Glen Afric someday. I would like to thank everyone who supported my fundraising activities.”