Walk On The Wild Side - Travel Tips for Adventurous Volunteers

That font of ever-expanding wisdom, Wikipedia, defines adventure travel as follows:

“Adventure travel is a type of tourism, involving exploration or travel with perceived (and possibly actual) risk, and potentially requiring specialised skills and physical exertion…Adventure travel may be any tourist activity that includes the following three components: a physical activity, a cultural exchange and connection with nature.”

If you’re the type of person who has a passion both for helping out developing communities, and for adventure, if you feel at home in a kayak in rough waters or on the end of a bungee cord, if you enjoy pushing yourself to the limits of physical and mental exertions in deserts and jungles alike, if you thought the guys in the Point Break movie were a bunch of toddlers - you should consider tailoring your volunteering or gap year experience to include these adventures. Many countries offer both a range of volunteer opportunities AND breathtaking activities and experiences, and South Africa is definitely high up on this list!

Here are some tips compiled from various well-travelled adrenalin junkies and risk-takers, to help those who like a bit of spice with their sugar to survive their adventures.

1. Pack light and smart. If your planned trip is two weeks, pack like you are going for one week. You probably don’t need your best going-out clothes, or several spare bathing suits! You’ll just be weighed down unnecessarily, and if you’re going to be looking for excitement, you’re going to be doing a lot of walking.  Ideally, your carry-on bag should be your only luggage – although this isn’t practical for everyone, it will certainly help you stay fast and loose!

2. Be flexible. Stretch and breathe…and accept that things can change, and your well-laid plans will have to change along with them. Transport in developing countries often runs late – sometimes VERY late. Mishaps can happen, things can get mislaid. Keep a positive attitude and these unforeseen happenings will probably be the subject of your best stories when back at home.

3. Get to know the culture and customs of the locals. This seems pretty obvious, especially for a volunteer who is used to working alongside local people – but it can also serve as an important survival skill for when you want to step off the beaten track. At the bottom of the scale, knowing local customs can prevent embarrassment for your or others. At the high end of the scale, it might keep you out of jail, or other sticky situations. It will work in your favour to know some of the local language as well – this shows that you have enough respect and empathy to want to communicate and fit in as best you can.

4. You’re a guest – act like one. When you accept an invitation to dinner from an acquaintance, you don’t walk into their house and immediately pull up your nose because the house smells of cabbage and dogs, or point out the light bulb that isn’t working, or laugh at their dinner conversation because you think it’s silly – right? You shouldn’t have these attitudes about foreign countries either. Respect other cultures and have some humility about your own. This kind of attitude will open doors for you – someone will be far more likely to take you to “secret” surf spots or the best cliffs for rock climbing, if you respect both the people and their environment.

5. Be aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Even if you consider yourself a fit, feisty and fearless adventurer, you’re still human. Consider carefully what your particular schedule might involve. You might desperately want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, but you have a strenuous volunteer programme lined up for the week before – perhaps a mountain biking trip in the foothills would be a better choice, and do Kili on another trip? Do the climb, have a week to “chill”, and hit the volunteering programme after? Also, make sure you practice the survival skills needed for your adventure, and step up your fitness programme for a month or two before you travel.

6. Get connected. Contact that friend of a friend of a friend who lives in or near your adventure destination. This is particularly helpful on trips to some foreign countries where tourists are easy marks, con-men are everywhere, and even well-meaning locals can be very persistent about being your “tour guide” (or even friend-with-benefits!). Someone you can trust to advise you on the best places to eat, stay, explore, etc. is worth their weight in gold. If you want to go somewhere where you don’t know anyone – get to know someone! Don’t be shy, make friends. Stay on guard, but put yourself out there and let them know what you’re looking for.

7. Push yourself. This is adventure travel, not lying on a lounger at a beach resort with an umbrella drink!  Challenge yourself. Try something new. It could turn out to be your next passion in life. If you’re an avid climber, you might find you also SCUBA diving. The possibilities are endless. You’re a committed soul and you’ve already planned your adventure – now make the commitment to get out of your comfort zone at some point along the way. Trying something you might not be an expert at is always exciting - and a little bit of humiliation and suffering along the way of an epic adventure can make the daily challenges of life back home way more manageable. These are also the kinds of life lessons that make for dedicated and highly effective volunteers.

8. Record everything. You’ll probably be too busy to walk around with several cameras, snapping away at everything like the stereotypical tourist – but do take photos, and do keep a diary of your encounters and adventures. You will never regret the time spent recording, when you’re clicking through your photo galleries or paging through your travel-stained journal. When the daily rat race starts wearing you down, get out this material and get motivated for your next adventure. 

 

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