By Jack Gayer
In my late teens and early 20s, I backpacked through South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. One of the main benefits of volunteering in these countries was that it allowed me to stay longer without having to spend money. This is because some programs, like the ones I did, gave you a room and board in exchange for a set amount of labor. However, there were also unexpected benefits of volunteering to afford a gap year besides saving money.
Experiencing, Not Just Skimming a Country
For South Africa, I used Workaway, a volunteer site that connects volunteers with hosts around the world. Through them, I found Simonskloof, a mountain retreat several hours outside of Cape Town. While at Simonskloof, I was able to experience the country in a way many tourists don’t have the chance to. I went to many “Braais,” or barbeques at neighbors’ and friends’ houses. I ate regional food and not just restaurant versions of it. Locals taught me about the country’s history, the current regime, and the everyday issues they dealt with. In short, I became part of the community while learning about the country as a whole.
One issue South Africans hope to avoid, and I got to experience, was wildfire. This was an indelible experience. The fear and uncertainty that wildfire brings are unlike any experience I have had before or after. The fire threatened to wipe out Simonskloof and other houses in the region. We tried to divert the fire before it reached us by, if I recall correctly, strategically laying brush to make it go in a different direction. However, there was nothing to do at a certain point but have a beer and wait to see how it would play out. Later that night, we would help put out the fire on a nearby mountain with what looked like giant fly swatters. Nowhere on Workaway’s site did it mention putting out wildfires would be one of my responsibilities. Further, Jurgen, the multi-talented owner of Simonskloof, made it clear it was not required or expected we help, but it was not an experience I was going to miss.
An Abundance of Free Time
Another unexpected benefit of volunteering to afford a gap year is the free time. I never worked an eight-hour day the whole time I volunteered. This left plenty of time to read in a hammock, hike up the mountain trails, and swim in the nearby ponds. I would take long walks with the other volunteers and enjoy the local scenery. It also gave me plenty of free time after I finished volunteering.
After volunteering for a while at Simonskloof, I had barely spent any money and could now take my time deciding what else I wanted to do. I met another backpacker; we rented a car together and toured almost every major city up the coast. I also spent a lot of time sitting around Ubuntu, a hostel in Jeffrey’s bay, reading (again), swimming at a nearby beach, hanging out with the locals, and enjoying doing nothing.
Volunteering isn’t what you expect
People often think of volunteering as something you do because it looks good on a resume. It’s not always viewed as something that can be enjoyable. Volunteering to afford a gap year can give you wild, life-changing experiences and allow you to have plenty of time to just chill out and enjoy your day or the rest of your travels. There are many unexpected benefits of volunteering to afford a gap year, and these are but a few of the reasons.