Jenna Marie Matthews - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

I got offered a new job and decided to take a break before I started the new career. I had always told myself I would go travelling again when I left my job, but never thought I really would get the chance in reality, so when I got the chance I grabbed it with both hands.

Close encounter with lion cub at Antelope Park, Zimbabwe
Early morning selfie with a lion cub

Why did you choose African Impact?

I decided to go abroad very last minute and no one was able to come with me. I quickly vetoed backpacking on my own, as I was worried about safety and I wanted someone to share the experience with. I then decided on volunteering and hit Google. I read up on hundreds of different programmes, but as soon as I stumbled upon the Lion Conservation project in Zimbabwe I knew it was "the one". I really wanted a hands on experience where I could interact with big cats and this programme was perfect.

What was your favorite part about Zimbabwe?

The people of Zimbabwe are amazingly friendly and have a great attitude to life. I felt very welcome.

Walking with lions at Antelope Park, Zimbabwe
Walking with lions

What made your experience abroad unique?

Waking up to the roar of lions was pretty special. Getting so close to these amazing animals, observing them in their natural habit, walking in the African bush with three cubs running around me, getting to scratch a young lions backs while it made happy noises at me and head rubbed me is something I'll never forget.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

The staff at Antelope Park are amazing. The locals who work at the park are so friendly and knowledgeable. The animal handlers explain everything to you, why you are doing what you are doing and how it helps the park/animals/community. The volunteer manager is fantastic and is very flexible when making the next day's rota, which means you can get the most out of your experience. I was a lion volunteer, but was still able to spend days in the community and at the stables.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

Whilst at Antelope Park, you can take a trip to Victoria Falls. I was only at AP for three weeks and didn't want to miss anything, so I didn’t go (the park organised a trip that takes five days, so I didn't want to miss a week with the lions). However, in my last week, some of the volunteers organised their own trip to Victoria Falls for only three days, and I wish I had done this on my first week now. However, I am now making plans to take my boyfriend to Antelope Park next year and tag along on the Victoria Falls trip.

Elephant at Antelope Park, Zimbabwe
Making friends with an elephant

Describe a typical day in the life of your program. 

6-8 a.m. walk the lion cubs in the bush
8-9 a.m. breakfast
9:15 a.m.-noon lion enclosure cleaning, or snare sweep, or manual labour on the park
Noon-2 p.m. milkshake time at the coffee shop, followed by lunch
2-4 p.m. making toys for the lions, or topping up lion water
4 p.m. lion walk or research (observing the Ngamo release pride) or elephant herding
6 p.m. dinner
7 p.m. drinks at the bar, or sitting around the campfire

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

Playing card games at the bar, milkshakes at the coffee shop, sunbathing by the pool, napping (it's tiring work!), horse safaris, trips (e.g rhino trekking), socialising with other volunteers.

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

The volunteer accommodation is all built around a campfire in the "volunteer village". The volunteer accommodation are huts containing two bunk beds and several sets of drawers. The accommodation is basic but clean, and has everything you need. The way it is set out makes it very sociable, so there are nearly always volunteers sitting around the fire pit during the day and night. I was pleasantly surprised by the showers, which were quite big, clean and almost always hot. There is also a great coffee shop on site serving drinks, cakes, milkshakes and ice creams and a lovely open bar.

Volunteer with lions at Antelope Park, Zimbabwe
Meet my new friends

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?

CLOTHING! It is FREEZING in Zimbabwe at nighttime, from about 6 p.m. until 7 a.m. So you need to take lots of layers and warm jumpers. I was thankfully told this by a past volunteer and was very grateful for my thermal top, body warmer and bobble hat. You will find yourself sleeping in long trousers and several tops! I would also recommend taking lots of changes of clothes, as you will get very dirty. And leggings (not just shorts) so your legs don't get scratched in the bush. Lastly, I didn't take any "nice" clothes with me because of the nature of the work. But I wish I had some nice tops for the evenings/weekends.

Now that you're home, how has your program abroad impacted your life?

For some people I met, this was their first trip abroad and this experience really changed their perspective on life. I had already travelled a lot but I had never volunteered before. I now really want to volunteer all over the world. 

I have learnt a lot about conversation, about Africa, and I have some amazing memories (and photos!) to keep forever.

Would you recommend African Impact to others? Why?

One hundred percent. The organisation is fantastic, the conservation project is very worthy, the park is amazing and the volunteer program is very well set up. I had an amazing time and would highly recommend this to everyone.