How to take a gap-year adventure in 10 days

Do you crave a gap year-style adventure but just don't have the time? Kate McGinlay fulfills a childhood dream on a 10-day trip combining voluntary work with a journey into the African bush


How to take a gap-year adventure in 10 days

As a child, I longed to go to the mythical land that was ‘Africa’. My grandmother was a Wren in South Africa during World War II, which fascinated me. At night, I would lie in bed and imagine capturing animals for zoos like the heroes in my favourite Willard Price adventure stories. As I got older, I imagined working in a hospital or a school. Then I got interested in art and ended up following a completely different path. With a busy career, I doubted I would ever realise my dream. When I hear about a 10-day trip to Kenya with Hands Up Holidays that combines four days’ voluntary work at Shepherd’s Orphanage in Nairobi with a visit to the Masai Mara, I’m intrigued. While sceptical as to how much help I can be in just four days, a longer trip isn’t an option right now and the staff at Hands Up Holidays assure me that any help relieving the full-time care-givers at the orphanage is worthwhile. I fly into sprawling Nairobi and check in to my hotel, about 30 minutes’ drive from the orphanage, which is in the slum of Kibera.

Next morning, I’m collected by Judy, who looks after the volunteers. She tells me Kibera is the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa and that 25 per cent of its population have AIDS. As we drive deeper into it, the feeling of despair is palpable. The orphanage, a dusty corrugated-iron compound with no sanitation, is home to 40 children between the ages of 18 months and 14 years and provides respite for numerous other kids. There are two full-time staff and a handful of volunteers. I’m told to join in where I see fit. With no relevant skills, I feel a bit useless. Judy assures me that there is plenty of food preparation and cleaning to be done. In the primitive kitchen I discover a mountain of green beans that need to be prepared for lunch. When the infants, taught inside the orphanage, take a break, the air is filled with their laughter and I begin to relax, joining in with their games.

The little ones are desperate for hugs and while I’m conscious of not getting emotionally involved — as I’m only here for a few days, that wouldn’t be fair to them or me — I’m told that individual attention is such a rare treat here that basic interaction is fine and welcome. On my last day, one of the older children, Nancy, shyly tells me it is her twelfth birthday. A good excuse for a party, I say. Everyone agrees and my final hours at the orphanage are very happy.

I’m frustrated that I can’t stay for longer as I’ve begun plotting things I want to do here, from classroom projects to building a shower block. I feel a bit weird about going on safari in the Masai Mara — it seems so indulgent — but I am hungry to learn more about this country and I can only do that by exploring further. Flying over the Mara I feel awed by the vastness and beauty of the landscape. Home for the next three days is Siana Springs, a basic but comfortable camp. There are six other guests and each day we are taken on game drives into the bush. I will never forget the heart-stopping moment of my first sighting: a pride of lions with six cubs. Another time, we clamber down from the vehicle to have lunch in the shade of an acacia tree, a few yards from a mass of wildebeest gathering by the Mara river.

For a thrilling moment I feel part of the landscape rather than just an observer. As I begin my journey home, I ponder how much I’ve experienced. My emotions have ranged from extremes of sorrow and compassion to amazement and joy. Suddenly I understand the goal of Hands Up Holidays: to capture the hearts of visitors so that next time, they come for longer. I know I will.

Check out the 10-day Kenyan Love Affair with Hands Up Holidays.

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