Volunteering with wild animals and horse riding in Zimbabwe, Africa

Zimbabwe

This guest post is written by our very own Luzia, who went on the Zimbabwe volunteering and horse riding holiday last month!

After more than 1.5 years I finally went back to Africa, this time to Zimbabwe. This country was on my list for a long time, like no other… Unfortunately, I only had two weeks for this trip, so I thought long about where I would go, to make sure I get the most out of these two weeks. My decision finally came down to Imire. Imire is a conservation reserve that cares for wildlife of all kinds, but specialises primarily in rhino conservation. In order to bring the importance of this task to people from all over the world, they offer two incredible volunteer programs. One of them is for horse riders, so you spend most of your time riding in the bush, the other one is for non-riders. 

All photos are taken by Luzia Montag.

In Zimbabwe for the first time

So I set off, traveling alone as usual, and this time I was more excited than ever. I thought for a long time why this time it was so much more exciting, until my 6-hour wait at the airport of Harare, Zimbabwe (I was waiting for my shuttle and other volunteers). I realised why: I actually knew nothing about this country. I have been to many countries in Southern Africa and of course none of them can be compared to the other. And for whatever reason I had completely missed to read up on Zimbabwe in advance this time - however, I was absolutely positively surprised. 

Sunset in Zimbabwe, Africa

Surrounded by friendly people

Already during my waiting time at the airport I noticed how infinitely friendly the people here were. I used the time to get a sim card, with the help of a very friendly and extremely patient saleswoman, and then caught up on some sleep. In other African countries, I might not necessarily advise falling asleep for several hours in a completely crowded airport reception hall if one's luggage is dear to one - but here, that didn't seem to be a problem. The shuttle came, picked me and two other volunteers up and after about 2 hours of driving we finally arrived in Imire. I was taken to the "Numwa" volunteers house and after settling in, having something to eat and going to bed early, the adventure started the next day. 

Volunteer with rhinos at Imire, Zimbabwe

The horse riding and wildlife adventure starts!

For me, the day at Imire always started at 5.30am, with my coffee on the shore of the lake, which borders directly on the beautiful garden of the volunteers house and a perfectly timed lion roar just in time for sunrise. I kept up this ritual for the entire two weeks and it was absolutely magical every morning. African sunrises and sunsets never get old! Exactly at 6.15am we started the first of three activities of the day. This day started with a horse ride through the bush. On the way to the stables I realised for the first time how huge the reserve was, we drove for what felt like an eternity and actually the car ride was a game drive in itself. On the way I saw all kinds of antelopes, zebras, giraffes, baboons, warthogs and from a distance two elephants, which I would get to know better later. However, I did not know that at that moment.

Sunrise at Imire, Zimbabwe, Africa

The first horse ride in the African reserve

Arriving at the barn, I met Judy - she is definitely one, if not the most fascinating woman I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I've never met anyone who seemed more connected to nature, and there's definitely no one who told stories better than she did. Anyway, at around 70 years old, she was the one leading our rides. Not just this ride by the way, but pretty much every ride that takes place on Imire. All the other riders were already at Imire for a week and had picked out their horses that they rode every day. I got a small grey mare named Lundi, with the description "She can be a bit funny sometimes". She was obviously still very young and certainly not older than 5 years, but it was love at first sight. After 1-2 hours we understood each other perfectly and this little mare gave 150% every day to do everything right I asked her. No matter if we were riding past buffalos or elephants, she took all her courage every time and carried me safely through the situation. Not even 4 very curious white rhinos, which followed us for quite a while, made her lose her cool.

Horses at sunset in Zimbabwe, Africa

Spotting wildlife on horseback

Riding in the reserve was a dream and simply indescribably beautiful! We galloped with giraffes on open savannahs, got into the middle of herds of zebras that were absolutely not bothered by us, watched the rhinos on the wide open spaces and even rode into the middle of them once - that was less beautiful, but definitely very exciting. Besides the rhinos, which for me are the most fascinating animals of all (next to chameleons), the elephants were a daily highlight for me. There are three living on the reserve. Nzou is an old lady elephant who was rescued by Imire many years ago. Since they didn't have any other elephants on Imire at the time, they socialized Nzou with the largest mammals they had on the reserve at the time - the buffalo. They quickly came to terms and after a while Nzou became their matriarch. Later, two more elephants came to Imire: Mac and Mandebvu. They introduced Nzou to the two new elephants, but apparently she had forgotten in the meantime that she was an elephant - she wanted nothing to do with them. That's why Nzou's name is Nzou, because that's Shona for elephant. Hoping to remind her that she was born as an elephant and not a buffalo. So far it has not worked..

Elephant and buffalo in Zimbabwe, Africa

Volunteering activities at Imire

Mac and Mandebvu were no less fascinating than Nzou. Since the three didn't get along very well, they lived in different parts of the reserve - Mac and Mandebvu not far from our volunteer house. Almost every day there was an activity planned with them, which mostly meant just spending time with them. Elephants exude such an indescribable aura that it never gets boring (for me, anyway) to spend time with them. Over time, we also became friends with their rangers and found out that on Sundays, the two elephants often stayed on the other side of the lake across from our volunteer house. No activities are scheduled on Sundays, meaning we have the entire day at our leisure and as long as we stay in the fenced area, we can do whatever we want. When the next Sunday came, we actually saw the elephants walking along the lake shore in the distance. Another volunteer, called Lulu, and I grabbed some beers, got in the canoe that was always ready on the shore and which was really the only thing I didn't love about Imire (because it was REALLY hard to steer and we were constantly afraid of capsizing) and paddled over to the other side of the lake. In fact, we passed the elephants perfectly and so could watch them, calmly, all by ourselves, up close and personal, with a few cold beers.... Even though I really didn't like that particular canoe, I had some of my highlights of the trip with Lulu in that canoe in the middle of the lake. We were constantly paddling out to enjoy the sunrise with a coffee and the typical lion roar in the background, to admire the sunset when the entire lake was bathed in dramatic pink, and on a constant search for the elephants across the lake.

Elephant sighting in Zimbabwe from a canoe, at Imire

Friendliness of the people at Imire

Even though this story is only a tiny part of my stay on Imire, I had an unimaginably great time. I could never have imagined that the time would be so wonderful and that saying goodbye would be so incredibly hard. I have actually never met so many always good-humoured and without exception friendly people anywhere else in the world. In fact, I can't remember a single unfriendly or bad-tempered person, which is really shocking, especially to a German. On the subject of friendliness: I find chameleons, as already mentioned, incredibly great. Accordingly, I made it a goal to find one before my departure. Unfortunately, it was dry season, which meant they were hiding and almost impossible to find. Lulu and I spent several afternoons with our heads stuck in some bushes, with stiff necks because we stared non-stop into the trees and with our European blindness of course we still didn't find one. Finally, I started asking all kinds of people for help. Every ranger I came across, I gave the task immediately, to please let me know if he found one. Even though everyone took this task very seriously, we had no luck. So I took more serious measures: I asked the gardener for help. With my hands and feet I explained to him what I needed his help with and he seemed to have understood the seriousness of the situation, fortunately. Apparently he spent his entire next shift looking for a chameleon. And he finally found one. When he was finally able to show it to me, he was the happiest person, simply because he knew that he could give me a huge joy with it.

Feel free to reach out to Luzi if you have any questions about the volunteer program! This is Luzi's email address: luzi.montag@hotmail.de.

Volunteer at Imire, Zimbabwe
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