If you’ve been following my blog over the past 12 months then you’ll no doubt have noticed that I’ve spent a fair amount of 2019 in Zimbabwe on the Nakavango Conservation Program. Given that I’ve spoken so glowingly about the experience (so much so that I visited twice), it’s no wonder that a whole bunch of readers have asked me questions about both the conservation activities volunteers participate in as well as the more social side of the program. As a result of those questions I thought it might be useful to put together a brief and honest Nakavango FAQ to answer some of the main questions I’ve been asked.
If you want to get a better sense of what an average day at Nakavango entails, then make sure to read my “Day In The Life” post alongside this Nakavango FAQ.
Why Volunteer on the Nakavango Conservation Program?
There are so many things I could write in answer to this question. But, after my first visit to Nakavango I felt compelled to write a short recommendation for their Facebook page. I think the review really encapsulates my thoughts on the lasting impression the program has on its volunteers:
“I find it hard to put a review of Nakavango into words. When I was researching the program I saw people had made comments such as ‘life-changing’ and that the Nakavango team felt like an ‘extended family’. To be honest I kind of scoffed at them. I’d never felt that kind of deep-rooted connection with a place over such a short period of time.
But then I spent two weeks on the program.
Justine, Dean, Hope, Ian and the entire Nakavango team have designed an experience that in my opinion is incomparable to any other two-week ‘vacation’ I’ve ever been on. If you want to work alongside a group of individuals passionate about sharing their love and knowledge of wildlife, conservation, community and Zimbabwe then look no further. You’ve found the place for you!”
The remainder of this Nakavango FAQ will only further add to the abundance of reasons to volunteer on the program!
Nakavango FAQ: What are the Conservation Activities Volunteers Undertake?
Activities are varied according to the time of year and the current priorities on the Reserve. However, the Program’s activities are in the most part designed to enhance the resident Black Rhino’s habitat as well as all wildlife on the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve. Over the years, the Black Rhino population has been decimated in the region, and the Program works to enhance or create new Black Rhino populations through breeding programs and the movement of sub-adult Rhino. Your efforts will help achieve that objective.
On my last trip to Zimbabwe I worked with the Program’s Operations Manager to put together a handy summary of the main activities that volunteers undertake on a weekly basis. You can download and read that summary by clicking on the link below.
When is the Best Time to Visit?
Put simply, there are so many different things to factor in to the equation and there is no perfect answer (except to say that any time is a good time):
- Safari wildlife is always best viewed during the dry season which is from June until October in Zimbabwe.
- Seeing you’ll be visiting Victoria Falls you’ll also have some other considerations. For example, you can only visit Devil’s Pool between late August and early January. In addition, the Falls are at their roaring best in the wet season between November and March (although, to be honest, they’re stunning year-round).
- If you’re more worried about the weather, then you’ll need to remember that the summer, which lasts from about September until April, can get hot (and humid from November). Winters, which last from May until August, are much milder. During the wet season, particularly between December and April, the mosquitoes are more prevalent.
What Should I Take with Me?
In the Nakavango FAQ Clothing table below I’ve provided my basic packing list along with recommended number of items. The program offers a weekly laundry service (you just leave your laundry bag outside your room on the designated morning) which means that my packing list should just about cover you regardless of how long you stay. I typically pack a little more than I need, so you could probably even cut down it if you’re a thrifty packer.
In terms of clothing just remember that you’re essentially on safari. Therefore, colors should be as neutral as possible (khaki is ideal). Camouflage or military-style clothing is illegal in Zimbabwe, so just bear that in mind as well.
|1||Long Sleeve Shirts or T-Shirts||2|
|3||Short Sleeve Shirts or T-Shirts||4|
|7||Lightweight Fleece (Season Dependent)||2|
|8||Heavyweight Fleece (Season Dependent)||2|
|9||Wind and Rain-Proof Outer Layer (Season Dependent)||1|
|10||Warm Winter Hat (Season Dependent)||1|
|11||Lightweight Thermal Layer Hat (Season Dependent)||1|
|12||Peaked Hat/Baseball Cap||1|
|15||Nicer Set of Clothes for Evenings Out (at least one set)||1|
|16||Warm Gloves (Season Dependent)||1|
|20||Trainers / Sneakers||1|
|23||Sleeping Bag and Liner||1|
|29||Spare Batteries for Headtorch||1|
|31||Platypus / Camelback / Sigg Water Bottle (Large)||1|
|34||Spare Shoe Laces||1|
|36||Sunscreen (Factor 50)||1|
|37||Chapstick / Lip Balm||1|
|42||Advil Cold and Sinus||1|
|53||Micro Fibre Towel||1|
|56||Passport (with Photocopies)||1|
|58||Tickets and Itinerary||1|
|59||Insurance Documents (and Photocopies)||1|
|60||Vouchers and pre-departure information||1|
|61||Required visas or vaccination certificates (required) (With photocopies)||1|
I’m travelling alone, does that matter?
Absolutely not. Most volunteers I met were solo travelers, male and female, many of whom had never been to Africa, let alone Zimbabwe before. In addition, most of the rooms are singles (although you’ll be required to share a bathroom with others). There are also a limited number of rooms to cater for couples.
One of the other major benefits of the Program is that it’s staffed with a team that make you feel at home and show you the ropes. They actively go out of their way to put your mind at ease if you’re a nervous traveler.
What about Downtime?
Downtime on the program is best separated into weekday hours between activities and weekends:
Weekdays: The downtime between morning and afternoon activities typically lasts somewhere around 5 hours. In that time, you can typically manage a quick trip into Victoria Falls Town (which is about a fifteen-minute drive away and taxis can be easily arranged). In town there are some decent restaurants, bars, and a couple of curio markets.
If driving to town sounds like a bit too much effort in the mid-day heat then you can either relax at the center and take a dip in the pool, or you can walk the five minutes to the Stanley & Livingstone 5* Boutique Hotel next door. The hotel is a great place to grab a milkshake and sit overlooking to hotel’s impressive waterhole, where you’ll often see an abundance of wildlife.
Weekends: At the weekend the world is your oyster. Victoria Falls is home to a thriving tourist industry. As a result, there are a number of tour operators who can arrange everything from bungee jumps and white water rafting to day trips into Botswana to visit Chobe National Park. Weekend activities are best booked through the Program’s Operations Manager upon arrival as she gets a discount with Wild Horizons. You’ll be asked to sign up for weekend activities each Thursday and it saves you from all the hassle of arranging things yourself. For ideas on the sorts of activities available make sure to check out the Wild Horizons website.
Nakavango FAQ: What Wildlife Will I Encounter?
The first thing to note is that the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve is a ‘Big 5’ reserve. That means that you stand a chance, in theory at least, of seeing lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo on a single game drive. For such a small reserve (when compared to some of the regional national parks – and even Zimbabwean parks such as Hwange and Mana Pools) that’s incredibly impressive. The reserve is also an Intensive Protection Zone (IPZ) for the endangered black rhino – making it the last place in the area where you’ll have the opportunity of seeing one.
However, the chance of you seeing each of the Big 5 is remote; especially in the wet season. In particular, the thick vegetation makes your chances of spotting a leopard slim to none (despite several being known to roam the reserve). To put that statement into perspective I spent 5 weeks on the reserve this year during the dry season, and was out on the reserve every day, twice a day for 4 hours at a time. I didn’t see leopard in that time. For me personally that’s part of the thrill of safari – if you saw every single animal every single time you went out on a drive then the appeal would soon wear off. But for some – those perhaps who are on their first safari, or for whom this is a once in a lifetime trip – those odds might not be sufficient. I did however see each of the remaining four of the Big 5.
Outside of the Big 5 you’ll most commonly see impala, eland, zebra, waterbuck, kudu, giraffe, warthog and bushbuck. Less common but also on the reserve (and still in the ‘large game’ category) are wild dog, hyena, hippo, crocodile and sable antelope. There’s also a plethora of smaller game on offer including pangolin, honey badger, mongoose, galago, baboon, porcupine, aardvark, jackal, duiker and grysbok. In the nocturnal category (which is possible because night game drives are permitted on the reserve) are caracal, genet, serval and civet.
In summary, there’s an exhaustive list of potential wildlife to spot.
What’s the Accommodation Like?
When I first began my search for volunteer conservation programs, I was finding that a lot of the options involved dormitory-style living. Whilst I don’t necessarily have anything against that, there are just times when you need to escape for a little relaxation away from the group. Nakavango stood out to me because each volunteer has a private bedroom that gets cleaned every day and comes with linens and towels. The rooms are all immaculate and quickly come to feel like home. Bathrooms are shared one between each three rooms.
Away from the bedrooms, the conservation center boasts a great dining area, garden, fire pit and swimming pool that all look out onto a clearing inside the Reserve. You’ll often be lounging around in the garden and spot elephant, giraffe, bushbuck, and impala in that clearing. It’s also a great place to relax in your downtime between activities and in the mid-day heat. Finally, there’s also an air-conditioned lecture room where you can relax on the beanbags while watching a movie.
What about the Food, is it Good?
My regular diet consists of hotel room service (when I’m traveling for work), restaurant food (too often when I’m at home), or anything I can throw in the oven at home for 20 minutes at 375 F. It was therefore wonderful to spend a few weeks indulging in home cooked meals prepared by the loving hands of the Program’s resident chefs. There wasn’t a single meal that didn’t ‘hit the spot’ and the menu rotation is designed to suit the tastes of as many people as feasibly possible. Obviously, if you’re a ridiculously fussy eater then you might have some problems, but vegetarians are well covered. Breakfasts, given you wake up at about 6am each day, are usually prepared on the fly and consist of fruit, toast and cereal. Lunches include everything from burgers and fries to pasta and salads. Dinner is usually carb heavy (you’ll be thankful for that after a hard day’s work on the Reserve).
The only variation to this schedule is at the weekend, when brunch (essentially a full English fry up) is served at around 10am.
Nakavango FAQ: How do I get There?
The area is served by two international airports; Victoria Falls Airport – which is a 15 minute drive from the reserve and Livingstone International Airport (also known by its new, less catchy, name which is Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport) which is a short hop away on the other side of the border in Zambia (ignoring the border crossing requirements it’s actually only about a 40 minute drive away). Quite frankly, its accessibility couldn’t get much better. If you’re flying long-haul then you’re likely going to have a layover in Johannesburg (South African Airlines), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia Airlines) or Nairobi (Kenyan Airlines) before the final short leg into Victoria Falls Airport.
The Take Photos Leave Footprints Visit to Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve was a sponsored visit paid for, in part, by the Nakavango Conservation program. All views are those of the author.