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Melanie says; “Our time at CARE was one of the most satisfying, fulfilling times of our lives. It was a time when we felt that what we did every single day really had an impact on the animals. It’s very hard in the modern, consumeristic world to truly feel like that. Nothing else mattered other than making sure that the animals were ok. It broke my heart when we left.”
Melanie shared with us a little of her volunteer experience at C.A.R.E. from back in 2003 when C.A.R.E. was a very different place. It is always special to read a little bit of history;
"2003 was a life changing year for my husband and I in more ways than one. Our Australian permanent residency visa finally came through and so after a two year wait we were now able to migrate to Australia! Our house belongings were going to take at least 3 months to arrive in Australia by ship so we decided to spend this time travelling. We both had always had a love of Africa and primates so after a little bit of internet research we discovered CARE, a sanctuary for rescued chacma baboons and The Vervet Monkey Foundation (VMF) in nearby Tzaneen. The plan was to spend 6 weeks at CARE, four weeks at the VMF followed by a few weeks travelling, before we left on a one way ticket to Australia!
Arriving at CARE was such a culture shock for me. I think I cried for the first few days and I found it very hard to adjust. I’d wondered what I let myself in for. I remember Rita saying that the baboons were the priority and that if there wasn’t enough food to go around they would ALWAYS come first. I’m sad to say looking back on this now, I was pretty shocked as nothing comes between me and my food, but it didn’t take me long until I realised how true this was. It actually didn’t take me long either before I forgot about my corporate job, having to do my hair and make-up and look ‘presentable’ every day; the baboons don’t care what you look like and neither does anyone else. I soon got used to baby baboons peeing all over me and wouldn’t have had it any other way! Every morning started with putting on old clothes, or choosing clothes that previous volunteers had left behind. The mornings always started really cold as it was winter, but soon warmed up.
We stayed in Mountain Lodge which was at the top area of the centre. There were 4 bedrooms, a bathroom, communal lounge and kitchen. It was a great social area to mix with the other volunteers. We used to love waking up to the sound of the long-tits (the wild group of baboons that hung around the centre) jumping on the roof. Nothing since has ever beaten that as an alarm clock and I am not sure ever will. Each morning we would take a walk down to Rita’s house to start the daily routine. I remember one morning my husband rushing back up to Mountain Lodge saying, ‘Come and look at the elephants’. It’s not every day you wake up to elephants ripping their way through your front garden! This particular morning they were feeling pretty destructive and had ripped up the water pipes. I soon realised I was adjusting to life when my thoughts were, ‘Oh well, that’s Africa!’
It was always interesting walking down to the centre; we learnt pretty quickly not to carry food around. Getting the shopping in from the car was always challenging!
The tasks of the day were divided up between the volunteers on a roster system and included making up milk bottles to feed the babies, prepping the eggs with vitamin injections, helping the staff: Rhino, Moses and Bennett with maintenance, playing surrogate mum to the orphaned babies or going into town to do a food run.
One of my favourite tasks was to sit in round-hok with the babies and keep them entertained. The baboons used to jump around and learn how to play and interact with the others. When we arrived I remember wondering how the other volunteers who were already there, knew the names of the baboons. It didn’t take long however to recognise them by their individual markings, and before long we definitely all had our favourite cheeky baboon. Mine was Dolla and my husband’s was Fifi; she really had a soft spot for him. Another of my favourite ‘jobs’ was to feed the slightly older baboons in one of the bigger enclosures. The baboons would go crazy as soon as you arrived with the bucket full of milk bottles. They would jump all over you trying to get to the bottle and eventually they’d grab one (or if they were quick two!) and run off into a corner with it.
During the day it was always possible to take ‘time out’ at the Oliphants River, watching the wild baboons playing. Often you would see bush pigs foraging round and the occasional elephant. Everyone felt safe at CARE. It was always a pleasure to go and visit Bobby, the first baboon that Rita rescued. You could present your arm to Bobby (on the outside of the cage) and through the wire Bobby would groom you-picking your hairs, and pulling at dirt. There was nothing quite like it. The baboons loved grooming us!
Friday nights were always fun at CARE as we used to head to the local shabeen which is a local bush bar. We all used to pile into the back of a bakie (a ute). It was crazy as we were all squashed in holding on for dear life going down dirt tracks, often picking up people along the way. There was nothing but laughter the whole evening. The local African ladies would laugh their heads off at my petite frame with no hips, trying for dear life to dance like they could. They were amazing to watch and the evenings were so magical. It certainly was nothing like you’d find down your local pub and nothing that I imagine I could replicate again.
One of the most amazing experiences about CARE was meeting and spending time with Rita Miljo. Rita had such an impact on our lives that I will never be able to put into words. I don’t think she ever realised that either and it breaks my heart that we will never be able to return and tell her that. We always had plans to. During our time in South Africa we had a few eventful dog rescues (another story!) which included rescuing a Jack Russell that was a stray at the VMF. He was in a very bad way (ticks, fleas, mango flies, everything!) but we brought him up to health and wondered what to do. Rescuing a dog on our way to a life in a new country was not part of the plan! But Rita was always encouraging and asked ‘Why wouldn’t you take him with you?’ We now have a 15 year old Jack Russell who has had the most amazing life! Thank you Rita.
Our time at CARE was one of the most satisfying, fulfilling times of our lives. It was a time when we felt that what we did every single day really had an impact on the animals. It’s very hard in the modern, consumeristic world to truly feel like that. Nothing else mattered other than making sure that the animals were ok. It broke my heart when we left. Even though we were spending another four weeks at the VMF, it was never the same as CARE (to me I related baboons to dogs and vervets to cats; they were much harder for me to get along with).
If you’ve ever considered visiting South Africa or volunteering overseas, grab the opportunity with both hands because you won’t ever regret it.
At the time of volunteering we were in our late 20s/mid 30s and were worried we would feel out of place being older than the standard ‘gap year’ student. But we soon realised that there isn’t a ‘standard volunteer’. It is a great way to meet people from all around the world, of all ages and interests, some of whom we are still in touch with 12 years later. We will always continue to support CARE where we can because it holds such a special place in our hearts and always will."
- Melanie Eager, of Eager for Life, a Nutritionist and Wellness Coach.
Thanks to Melanie for sponsoring C.A.R.E. this incredible opportunity to be amongst leading Primate Organisations in 2016's calendar! And a special thank you to Corrin LaCombe the Chief Executive Director of We Thrive Global and the Primate Connections calanders for featuring the beautiful baboons!