I remember the heat and that heavy atmosphere that made me certain that any moment there would be a crash of thunder and the heavens would open. The air smelled like mud, but the ground below my heavy walking boots was still as solid as rock. I didn’t care if it rained, I’m not even sure I’d have noticed if it did, because the ranger in front was beckoning me forward.
My heart was racing and my eyes were fixed. About 10-feet ahead of me was a wild lioness looking right at me. I wasn’t in a vehicle or behind a fence, but I was there in the African wild, with nothing between us. It was my first game walk and I knew that moment would never leave me.
But that isn’t where it all began. My interest in conservation comes from a love of wildlife that I have had my entire life. It was this love that prompted my parents to ‘adopt a lion’ for me as a present for my 8th birthday. The money from this ‘adoption’ went to the Born Free Foundation and I have been an active supporter of the charity ever since.
Needless to say, I have ‘adopted’ countless Born Free animals since then and as the years passed, I have found other ways to actively support the charity, from selling raffle tickets to recycling mobile phones; if there is a way to help, I will have tried it.
But my ultimate dream was to see some of these animals in real life and actually have the chance to visit a Born Free Sanctuary. In 2008, after three years of fundraising, I was finally able to make that dream a reality, and my passion for conservation was firmly cemented.
I had chosen to volunteer at Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa, which is home to two Born Free Big Cat Sanctuaries. One of these was built in memory of murdered photographer Julie Ward, whose book ‘A Gentle Nature’ (which, incidentally, I had won from purchasing one of the very raffle tickets I’d been selling) was one of the inspiring factors which made me pick Africa.
Born Free also has sanctuaries in India and the USA, but Africa was the top choice for me. I’d never been before, but for years I had read books, watched documentaries and even collected magazine cut outs of majestic scenes of African nature at its most proud.
I spent 13 weeks working at Shamwari Game Reserve and every moment felt new, fresh and inspiring. Every day and every experience was unique; it felt like I’d just been born and this was my education on the world.
I had originally chosen to volunteer because I wanted to feel I was making a difference. But now I have a different perspective: I want to make other people make a difference, because conserving Africa’s amazing wildlife is not just a one-woman job.
I want those experiences and those memories to be available to the generations after me, and to think of any of those magnificent animals or breath-taking landscapes being mistreated or threatened in its existence makes me truly sad.