10 Tips for a Big Cat Research Volunteer in Kenya | African Impact Blog

Author: Jeremy Ensor

In 2017, at the of 68, I spent two weeks with my son volunteering with African Impact on a lion conservation project at Antelope Park, Zimbabwe. The experience was surreal, as I volunteered with ‘youngsters’ from around the globe, walked with magnificent lions and gentle giants – elephants – every day. It was exhilarating. It didn’t take long for me and my son to sign up to a second trip, and we soon found ourselves volunteering on the Big Cat Project in Kenya’s Maasai Mara Reserve.

Jeremy group photo with son and other volunteers

Jeremy and his son experienced our project in both Kenya and Zimbabwe

The main difference between these two projects is that Antelope Park offers volunteers a slice of luxury; a swimming pool, a restaurant, functioning wi-fi, while the Mara project takes you back to basics. The experience was remarkable… tough, but absolutely real. To lie in your bed listening to wild lions, elephants and hippos passing through the camp every night was thrilling. It was digital detox.

1. Come in with an open mind

Come with an open mind. Bring books and games to read (although there are lots of books already there) as there is certainly no television or speedy wi-fi to keep you busy when the sun goes down. Expect a bumpy ride in the land cruiser (which you’ll be in for many hours on thrilling game drives). But, most importantly, be ready to be awed and have your mind blown by the glorious wildlife and scenery you see every single day.

2. Live like a local

Living like a local is a part of the experience. If you’re interested in a digital    detox – look no further. With no WIFI, one may resort to a sim-card, although there is limited mobile reception. (Note: the African Impact staff team have available internet access in the case of any emergency and are contactable 24/7).

3. Be prepared when it comes to cash

You cannot get Kenyan Shillings (KES) anywhere outside of the country, but there are ATMs in the airport and in some hotels. Bring new US Dollar bills with you as they are often accepted as an alternative. The locals have an excellent payment system called MPESA where you can pay by phone, but you would need to register for that beforehand. The current exchange rates for KES is 101 to the Dollar, 124 to the Euro and 140 to the GBP (data accurate as of 12th March 2018). This will fluctuate depending on the current world affairs and Kenyan politics, so be sure to keep an eye on this before you arrive.

4. Learn the lingo

The two main languages in Kenya are English and Swahili, both of which you will hear and learn during your time volunteering.

Swahili-speaking Maasai tribesman herds cattle

Members of the Maasai tribe and other Kenyans speak Swahili

5. Know which season you’re arriving in, and pack accordingly

Summer begins in September, with rising temperatures until late January. This season is when the conservancy is at its peak. The “long rains” are generally from March to May and “short rains” fall mostly in November/December. October time is great if you are interested in fewer tourists and great elephant and wildebeest experiences.

6. Bring an adapter

Across Kenya, the three-pin (square) British sockets are used for electricity – 240 volts, so definitely bring an adaptor if you want to use your electricals during your free time.

7. Plan your days

Kenya is quite an advanced country, but, like many parts of Africa, there are many potential frustrations for us ‘Westerners’. While the people are incredibly friendly, things don’t move very quickly. Take arriving at the immigration desk at Jomo Kenyatta airport; expect to have to wait to buy your visa. It’s $50 USD and while you can get it online, there are a lot of fake websites so be sure to chat to African Impact’s Destination Specialists before you arrive to get the most up to date information.

8. Familiarize yourself with the closest clinic

There is a doctor’s surgery at the Sarova Mara Game Camp – inside the Maasai Mara itself – and is about a twenty minutes’ drive from the volunteer camp.

9. Volunteering is no luxury holiday

There is no swimming pool or bath – so if you’re a water baby, be prepared for showers that are cold most-often-than-not. Don’t be afraid – you’ll be happy to have a cold splash to wake you up or cool you down from the hot weather!

Mara boasts beautiful sunsets in Summer

Mara boasts beautiful sunsets in Summer

10. Make an activity list outside of the volunteer village

Nairobi is a westernised city that has grown exponentially, so there is plenty of stuff to do during your time there before or after volunteering in the Mara. I would definitely recommend a visit the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust where you can meet and feed orphaned elephants and rhinos.

Here is a list of travel essentials you will need:

  • Binoculars
  • Sun cream
  • Travel insurance
  • A good DSLR camera with at least a 300mm telephoto lens (of course, any camera is good!)
  • Closed walking shoes/boots
  • Sunglasses
  • Sun hat
  • Water bottle
  • Material carry bags as plastic bags are banned in Kenya
  • Warm clothes for morning/evening game drives, including a beanie
  • Torch or head light
  • Water bottle
  • Insect repellent
  • At least $300 in cash if you want to go to the Mara itself for a day trip – it was well worth it as we saw all of the Big 5 in one day
  • A sim-card with data
  • Ideas and photos for a presentation to the local school and Guiding School

Ready for an once-in-a-lifetime, off-the-grid, African adventure?