Photography Volunteering on a South African Game Reserve: First Impressions

Thanda - South Africa

“Where are you from?”

“What project are you working on?”

“How long are you here for?”

The group sitting at the table outside Durban Airport gradually increases as volunteers arrive from various locations around the world.  Introductions are typically followed by the same three questions in a scene that resembles “first day at school”. 

As we leave Durban for the afternoon drive to Thanda, I let my mind wander.  I have just finished an incredible two-week adventure in the Arctic and my head is still there.  Like a relationship breakup, I am finding it difficult to move on.  My thoughts are constantly invaded by memories of wildlife encounters, sailing alongside sea ice, searching for polar bears from the ship’s bridge and enjoying a beer in 24-hour daylight.  I need a rebound travel fling, a new experience to fill the void leaving the Arctic has created.

It is time to leave my Arctic memories behind with the thermals, parka, gloves and boots I no longer need.

It is time to embrace the moment in Africa.

Thanda: My New Home

African Impact offer three projects at Thanda Game Reserve – Photography, Research and Conservation, and Community Development – and the diversity of the projects attracts volunteers of different ages, nationalities, backgrounds and interests.  I was looking forward to meeting the volunteers I’d be spending the next month with.

Since leaving the Arctic less than a week earlier, I had endured six flights and slept in four different beds.  So it was a relief to meet my roommate, unpack and settle into the room that would be home for the next four weeks.  As we explored the camp, I appreciated that whilst our accommodation was basic, it was comfortable and hot water, a bar and Wi-Fi were luxuries I didn’t have for most of the three months I over-landed in Africa back in 2009.  Yes, this would do just nicely!

The Photography Project

I’ve arrived at Thanda to take part in a four-week Photography Project run by African Impact, which begins with a four-day training course with a professional photographer.  The remainder of the time will be mainly spent photographing the wildlife in the park, but may also include some community and conservation support work.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say the main aim of my trip was to capture some great wildlife moments whilst improving my photography skills.  I fell in love with the African wildlife on my first visit in 2009 and having a month of safari drives as a photographer instead of a handful of drives as a tourist with a point-and-shoot is something I’m pretty excited about.  But it’s more than that: Africa is a destination that really got under my skin on my first visit and the opportunity to return, interact with the locals and hopefully give something back to the community is the reason I chose this particular volunteering experience.

Thanda - South Africa

But what is in it for African Impact?

I get the unique opportunity to indulge in my love of wildlife photography.  But what’s in it for African Impact?

Although I retain the rights to the photographs I take, the images captured by the volunteers contribute to African Impact’s photographic database.  Proceeds from photo sales from this database help finance the core projects at Thanda, but its main purpose is educational.  African Impact aim to document and preserve Thanda as a key area of Southern Africa and recognise that a key enabler of this is to engage local communities.  Donated photographs are used to help educate local schools about the special and unique environment they live in and are also used by NGO’s and other organisations for educational, awareness and marketing purposes.

In theory, it feels like a win-win scenario with a great opportunity to contribute to a long-term and sustainable vision.  But is this the reality?  I’ve volunteered in Bolivia and Cambodia and had mixed experiences, both uplifting and heart-breaking.  The heart-breaking moments resulted in me questioning the merit of volunteering abroad and I’ve learned to be wary of organisations that sound too good to be true.

But I’m also not ready to give up on the concept.

I truly believe that recognising there are fellow human beings, wildlife or environments in great need and wanting to do something about it is a very positive action.  Whilst it may not be possible to change the world as an individual, as a collective group anything is possible.

I have no doubt that the opportunity to photograph wildlife in its natural habitat for the next month will be an incredible one.  But will my experience as a volunteer be positive?

My disappointing but thought-provoking volunteer experiences have taught me the right questions to ask.  And my first impressions of African Impact are positive.  I like that I’ve been asked for a police check.  I like that the organisation’s vision is clearly explain on both their website and upon arrival at Thanda.  I like that they are happy to put you in touch with past volunteers.  I like that there is structure and clear objectives for each new group.  I like the passion and enthusiasm of the local team.  I also like that a friend I respect and trust has been here twice and has had a positive experience!

Time will tell – but my first impressions are positive!

The First Week

After five days that included an induction session, three 16-hour days, five game drives, a sunset shoot, a photography course mainly aimed at beginners but a good refresher for me, critique sessions and photo editing, I was ready to escape to St Lucia for a weekend of relaxation.

The first week was intense!

The highlight, by far, has been the game drives and having a photography focus has meant we’ve enjoyed more time at sightings than a typical tourist drive.  It gives us the opportunity to observe the behaviour of the wildlife and to anticipate a photo opportunity that captures a moment rather than a subject.  I already have a handful of highlights and can’t wait to get back out there again this week.


Top 10 Moments – Week 1

  1. Lion Loving


Photographing wildlife in it’s natural habitat has a hint of voyeurism about it.  When we arrived at this location, these two lions were relaxing in the sun.  Within minutes this cheeky male (the dominant male was not in the area) decided he fancied a bit of action and within a few more minutes, the moment was over!

2. The Elusive Leopard


Whilst this will certainly not win any photography awards, a leopard sighting is always special.  Our driver/guide has been in game reserves for more than a decade and was falling over his words in excitement when he spotted this leopard – a sure sign that this is a special moment!

3. Necking giraffes

Thanda - South Africa

One of the aspects of this volunteering assignment I’m enjoying most is the opportunity to spend more time than a typical tourist game drive at sightings.  This allowed us to watch two giraffes ‘necking’ which started out as an almost playful encounter but grew more aggressive between these two males.

4. Hyena’s lunch

Thanda - South Africa

Simply seeing African animals in the wild is exciting, but watching their behaviour is incredible.  Three hyena had taken down a baby buffalo and after an initial feed, had stayed in the area to protect their kill from lazier predators hoping for a meal without exerting any energy.  This hyena was not comfortable with our presence, continually circling us with one eye on his prize.

5. Moonlit Elephants

Thanda - South Africa

One of the challenges of game drive at the end of the day is the decreasing light and those special moments always seem to happen just as darkness begins to take over the scene.  One such moment was watching a herd of elephants arrive at a waterhole as the moon rose spectacularly behind them.

6. First Lion Sighting


A friend of mine who has also volunteered at Thanda warned me I may become complacent with the lions by the end of the month.  I am still finding this hard to believe as I just can’t get enough of them!  Our first sighting of the park’s North Pride was within an hour of our first game drive.

7. African Buffalo 


One of my favourite sightings of the week was a herd of African Buffalo.  Beasts of all ages and size stood lazily in the sun, chewing on the grassland, only irritated by the Ox Pecker birds that persisted on using them as a perch.

8. Sunset


Although the real attraction of Thanda is the wildlife that calls it home, the landscape itself is stunning.  The opportunity to take a break from wildlife spotting and capture the sunset allowed me to engage in my favourite photography genre.

9. In-flight Marshall Eagle


As we entered the game reserve for our first drive, we had bets on the first animal we may see – but we forgot about the birds!  This eagle left the branch it was resting on, to lead us into the wild, where incredible sightings were waiting for us.

10. The iPad Photographer


I’m not sure this photo even needs a caption!  Am I a camera snob?  Maybe – but the iPad camera on an African safari?  I just don’t get it….


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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at


  1. Sometimes it’s hard to contain the iPad rage, but I think you’ve done okay 🙂

    Completely jealous of the shots that you’ve taken, and all within such a short period of time too!

    • Yes, we’ve had some great sightings in the first week…and three more weeks to go! Today started with 5 white rhino, so fingers crossed that’s a sign for a great weekend ahead!

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