In a strange way, the only thing more daunting than facing a 12 1/2 hour flight followed by an 8 1/2 hour flight was finally fulfilling a lifelong dream. Don’t get me wrong – I was beyond excited – but there was something almost scary about taking a chance on a dream destination with the potential of it not living up to my expectations. In the end, though, South Africa surpassed them all.
We flew out of JFK in New York to Durban in South Africa with a plane change in Dubai. Our airline was Emirates, and if you ever get the chance to fly them on a long voyage, GO FOR IT. Highlights included spacious seats, ample leg room, individual seat screens with 1500+ channels of entertainment (movies, music, tv shows, and games), several courses of delicious food (complete with real silverware!), a blanket, and a little kit with a sleep mask, socks, toothpaste and a toothbrush. The screens also included a channel of cameras – one from the tail of the plane, one from the pilot’s viewpoint, and one pointing below.
I can’t stress enough how awesome Emirates was. The time actually passed relatively quickly, and in a far more comfortable setting than any other plane I’ve ever been on. The only downside was arriving just after sunset the following evening, which was disappointing since we immediately had a three hour bus ride to our destination. Since night had already fallen, we weren’t able to sightsee along the journey.
While in South Africa, our base was St. Lucia, a small town in the KwaZulu-Natal province on the east coast of South Africa. It’s an ideal location because it’s part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site (since 1999) and home to the Big 5. It is a stunning and diverse location both in terms of ecosystems and animal life.
In St. Lucia we stayed at BiB’s Backpackers. In relation to other hostels, I’m afraid I can’t be much help – this was my first-ever hostel experience, and since it was arranged through the program, I have no knowledge of what we actually paid for it or what went in to reserving it. I do know that VESA stations their South Africa program there every time, which means for most of the year, VESA volunteers run amok there.
The hostel itself is located down the main road in St. Lucia, and seems to be pretty standard from what I would expect a hostel to be. There is a pool and an on-site bar area, and boasts foosball, table tennis, and other entertainment options.
The one complaint I had about our dorm room was that one wall wasn’t completely finished near the top, so cool air seeped in through the mesh lining. June is a winter month for South Africa, which means dry heat during the days (not complaining here!) and cool nights. While we were there, a few of the local leaders admitted the area was having one of its worst cold spells ever. You’d think coming from Canada would have prepared me a bit better, but I greatly misjudged how chilled the nights would be and didn’t pack accordingly.
Our program kicked off the following morning with 6 days of volunteer work. We were divided up into three groups and each group was assigned a work rotation. For my group, it was two days of construction work, followed by two days of education work, and topped off with two days of conservation work.
The morning of our first day of volunteer work, though, we were in for a treat. Our day began with a cultural visit to the nearby Khula Village.
The Khula Village was amazing, and as far as I know, you can book a tour if you’re in the area. Having an insight into village life both current and past was unforgettable, but for me the best part was the chanting, dancing, and competitive fighting that took place near the end of the tour.
After our interesting morning, we ventured out for our construction work, which was taking place at the same school as our education work.
The image above is of a partly finished bathroom (which has since been finished).
Our first task was to clear away rocks and other debris, and from there we began mixing natural-based concrete. What I liked about VESA in this area was that they had hired local construction workers to assist in this process. While we were doing the actual mixing of the concrete, they had to give their approval, and they were the ones to spread it out, shape it, and declare whether it was sound enough.
The hardest part of the construction work – since the physical element actually felt gratifying once I realized I could do it – was not being distracted. The children were beyond adorable during recess, so we were teased for two days.
The children weren’t the only adorable locals causing distractions. Monkeys were everywhere, causing mischief while looking cute. Be wary of drawstring bags, as the monkeys are adept thieves and can open them easily.
We closed out our second day of construction work in the best way possible – with our first stunning African sunset. Just a short walk from our hostel – practically around the corner – was a wonderful dock and grass area made for watching the sunset.
Have you seen a South Africa sunset? If not, you should put that at the top of your travel bucket list!