Q. My husband and I are interested in going to South Africa next year. We want to see animals, but not by chasing them around in land cruisers with other tourists. We’d like to find a way to have an authentic experience by giving back — volunteering our time toward the preservation of animals and culture. I haven't found much on the internet that addresses our needs, and would be grateful for some guidance.

– Karen, Sun Valley, ID

A. Fancy a couple weeks’ worth of meerkat research in the Kalahari, under the tutelage of Cambridge Professor Timothy Clutton-Brock? Or nine days of documenting traditional environmental management in small, rural South African villages in the Limpopo Province with historian Clapperton Mavhunga, geneticist Dr. Simon Kang, and their research staff? How about a 16-day walking safari on South Africa’s eastern seaboard, spent recording data on wildlife spotted by you and your expert-led volunteer team?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, you need look no further than Earthwatch Institute Expeditions. The non-profit organization teams eager-beaver voluntourists like yourself up with top scientists, so that you get to play “research staffer” in dream vacation spots all over the world. Some expeditions require a decent amount of physical activity, but none require any field research experience.

To get you excited, here’s an excerpt from the Institute’s description of the walking safari expedition:

“You will work in teams of two, yourself and an armed guard, walking eight-to-ten-kilometer transects through classic acacia woodland, bushveld and forest, starting at first light of dawn. Walking over a diverse landscape ranging from rugged hills to gently undulating terrain, you will make every attempt to observe all wildlife, including the park's full complement of predators, along the way. When you spot a herd or individual of one of the 15 target species, you will record the species, herd size, compass bearing and distance. This is a rare chance to walk through scenery most people only see from a Land Rover.”

Part of the deal with Earthwatch expeditions is that you lend a hand when it comes time to clean up after meals or do other camp chores, but that’s part of the experience — and part of the reward. Hedonism is so last year.

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2008. The story was added to MNN.com in August 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

South African volunteer vacations
Don't just lay on the beach somewhere -- take a vacation that will make a difference in the world, like South Africa.