Friday, November 12, 2010

Going to Cape Town for Christmas!

The photos posted are not mine but they’re of Cape Town and Table Mountain (the photos are gleaned from the internet). I’ll be spending a great deal of December and the first of the New Year in South Africa’s famous city. I’ll be volunteering for Table Mountain National Park and I’m super excited!

When we first arrived in South Africa, by the time our first holidays rolled around, I was still reeling from being rocked by my new world and still felt I was finding my “South African legs.” I was incredibly overwhelmed with our pre-service training and trying to adjust to life at my permanent site. While by Christmas last year I had spent a couple of months at my site, I still felt I was finding my way in my community and worried more than a bit about planning for the upcoming school year: my first school year in South Africa.

All of my friends planned exciting trips for the December holidays and couldn’t wait to visit such exciting locals as: the Wild Coast, Turkey, Senegal, Coffee Bay, Victoria Falls, and of course, Cape Town. They cheerfully invited me along, but me being me, I mostly remained at my site last Christmas and was somewhat cajoled into visiting other Peace Corps volunteers in Mmakau. (This ended up being a lovely, lovely little trip and a wonderful way to spend my first Christmas in South Africa!)

It was also during this time that my ongoing struggle of “should I stay or should I go?” would begin. (Mercifully, I didn’t realize that this question would plague me my entire Peace Corps service.) One of the things I decided, something along the lines of goal setting and something along the lines of having something to look forward to, was to plan a trip.

I don’t travel extensively in the States either, mostly because I live in the beautiful state of Kentucky and it is full of woods and waterways where I spend my happiest moments. I generally hike and camp in Kentucky and Southern Indiana as my favorite forms of recreation, and simply don’t need to travel far. Not surprisingly, I’ve fallen in love with state parks and other natural areas and I’ve spent the last several years volunteering for such places. In this way, in the States at least, I’ve learned that you can travel a bit on the cheap if you’re willing to do a bit of a work exchange. This is how I got to Alaska in 2006: I volunteered to work in an Alaskan State Park for the summer and they “paid” me by allowing to room and board in the park.

So, during Christmas last year, I decided I’d try to find a park in South Africa to volunteer for, and plan one of my school holidays in this way. If I could plan a trip, I would have something to look forward to!

“Volunteer” means something different in South Africa, and I’m still not sure exactly what the term means in South Africa, even though my host father tried his best to explain, but it seems to mean something along the lines of “job posturing,” that seems initiated by a person to rise in the ranks of any given career, a form of professional development, if you will. For my South African host father, the fact that I was an American “volunteer,” he was convinced that I was guaranteed riches and wealth upon my return to the US. (I tried to argue this fact with him for several hours, and ultimately surrendered in defeat.)

Even with this, I was more than a bit surprised to find that in South Africa, to volunteer for a national park, you’re typically expected to pay a fee for your volunteer experience, and the fee isn’t cheap! On coming to South Africa, I was all about Kruger, wanting to see Kruger, etc., because Kruger is arguably the most famous natural area in the world. I found out rather quickly, that to “volunteer” for one week in Kruger, you’d pony up R 4,000 (about $600 US dollars).

I persevered in my research, however, mostly because I never could accept the concept of paying for volunteering. I found two possible options: one was to work with the “Friends of Pilanesberg” Game Reserve and the other, of course, Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town. I contacted the “Friends of Pilanesberg” and learned that they have “volunteer weekends” whereby people get together, one weekend per month, for maintenance-type work in the park: in exchange for “working,” you get an insider’s eye of the park. (I actually planned to join these people for a couple of weekends, but ultimately was discouraged by the traveling logistics.)

The more I read about the volunteer opportunity at Table Mountain National Park, the more excited I became, because it felt most like how I experienced similar situations in the US: they “hired” volunteers to help with park visitors with the Visitor’s Desk, with guided nature walks, with trail maintenance, with security, and with assisting with horticulture. I was more excited still to see they had a webpage, a Volunteer Coordinator, and contact numbers.

To volunteer for these positions is much like applying for any paid job. While park experience isn’t necessary, having it, for obvious reasons, is desirable. I’m blessed and lucky in that my love of parks and natural areas has kept me “volunteering” for such places for several years, so my “volunteer resume” is pretty impressive. But even so, it was a bit of work from my end to update my qualifications, contact people in the States to request them as references, etc., and I became more and more invested in this position at Table Mountain National Park.

After compiling and submitting my application/resume, it occurred to me that I might need Peace Corps’ permission for such a venture. Was there some obscure rule about “not volunteering” while serving as a “volunteer?” Although the practical side of me assured that of course Peace Corps would support my volunteering at TMNP if accepted, I had a small but niggling fear that Peace Corps might object and I’d better check. I sent a casual email to my boss: “Hey, by the way, I’m trying to volunteer for Table Mountain National Park for December, 2010. That won’t be a problem, will it?” Long, protracted silence. Uh, oh, I thought. Sure enough, the administration with Peace Corps South Africa had never entertained such a request and would have to seek approval from Washington, DC.

Seek approval from Washington, DC? Are you kidding me? I’ll be in Cape Town, I’ll be stationary, in one place, not traveling around. I’ll be in a National Park. You’ll know exactly where I am for the whole time. This seemed like an easy, no-brainer to me. Of course they would approve it!

So I waited to hear from both TMNP and Peace Corps in Washington. Well, of course the news was that I was accepted by the park and Peace Corps in Washington approved, but I still wasn’t home free.

In the US, in many park volunteer situations, you “work” in exchange for room and board. I had yet to have anyone from TMNP confirm that my accommodations would be provided by the park. And a question remained, but a significant question for me: I could come and work a three full weeks for the park, however, in order to do so I must have accommodations—a room—to stay in for the duration of my volunteer time.

A simple question, right? It would be a simple question in the US, but it took six months of phone calls and emails for an affirmative reply, that I’m still feeling a bit shaky about and worry yet that I may show up and no one will be expecting me and I’ll be out on the street.

But I’m going. I have my bus ticket and hopefully a place to stay and I’m reading up on the regional flora and fauna of Cape Town. I’m so excited and grateful for this opportunity, and am counting the days. I am going to have a B-B-B-----L-A-S-T!

I can’t wait until I can supply you with my own pictures and words concerning Cape Town and Table Mountain National Park, but until then, here’s some information from the 2000 edition of Must See South Africa:

“Table Mountain is one of the world’s most famous landmarks. The gigantic in-sign promising hospitality, its flat-topped summit can be seen by approaching ships from as far as 200 km-away—although whenever a southeaster blows (more often than holidaymakers care to think about), a fluffy ‘cloth’ of cloud quickly descends.

No visit to Cape Town is complete without a ride to the top of Table Mountain by cable car, a dizzying four-minute journey. Vertigo sufferers should grit their teeth and think of the marvelous views in store from the 1086m summit…

The mountain is also a nature reserve with around 500 footpaths up to the summit: pick up a leaflet with maps from the tourist office. Devil’s Peak, to the left of the mountain as you look up from the city center, and Lion’s Head, guarding its western flank, offer rewarding hikes too, especially when the watsonias are out in flower” (37).

I’ll be hiking in Cape Town for Christmas, 2010. Anyone want to join me?




  1. Great news, Karen. I will be in Cape Town from Jan 3-10. If you are there, we must get together. I was at Table Mtn. last year on at least 2 occasions. You will not be disappointed. It is beautiful.

  2. Sorry, Karen. If forgot that I am anonymous. That last comment was from me. B

  3. My mom and I will be there the 16th to the 20th! Anne will be as well, and Nate and his parents! Get-together!!! What dates will you be down there?

  4. Oh good! I'm so glad some of my Peace Corps family will be in town! I'm excited!

    I'm supposed to work for the park from Dec 15th through Jan 3rd but hope to, if money holds out, remain for the first two weeks in January just to knock around Cape Town a bit. We'll see. What fun! Can't wait!

  5. WOW!!! I hope this is a thrilling and wonderful addition to your adventure. Looking forward to hearing more. Thanks