Are you looking to take a break between high school and college – or between college and career? Do you want to do something different from your everyday life, but aren’t sure what? Consider taking a gap year! As these breaks between school become increasingly common, so do the many different opportunities to make the most of your gap year.
Whether you want to take some time to build a bit of income, take off from a full course load, or realign and figure out what you want to do next, a gap year can be an adventurous and productive way to do it. One of the most popular gap year activities, as you probably guessed, is travel. Fortunately, there are lots of amazing opportunities for students to travel the world – on a student budget – and have an incredible time meeting new people, trying different foods, enjoying incredible adventures, and even doing good and learning a lot along the way.
In this guide, we’ll focus on South Africa, a country that’s just perfect for gap year travelers.
South Africa is a beautiful country filled with many diverse cultures and beauty – from sprawling national parks where you can embark on a safari, to bustling cities where you can enjoy amazing food and tons of shopping, to gorgeous beaches excellent for surfing and adventure, South Africa has it all. Although known for its beauty, many people do not realize that most parts of South Africa are also struggling with poverty – especially in the outlying areas of larger (and more tourist-friendly) cities, such as Cape Town. This poverty often leads to poor education options, inaccessible healthcare, abandoned and feral animals, and a damaged environment – with few resources to fix these problems.
This is where travelers like you come in: as a volunteer or intern on one of the programs we’ve outlined below, you can make a difference while also exploring this beautiful country. Many of the people you’ll meet love having volunteers come to their communities and help with local initiatives to improve their lives and the lives of their children – while also sharing their culture and learning about yours.
Whether you are providing medical care or keeping children off the streets by coaching them in different sporting activities, you will have the opportunity to make a difference. You can ensure that the children of South Africa have a bright future ahead of them and that South Africa’s national parks, beaches, and other natural areas stay as beautiful as the day they were created. You can help to make all of this happen while immersing yourself in a completely new culture and seeing the beauty that comes along with being in South Africa. The organizations highlighted below not only do great work for their communities, but they also encourage their volunteers and interns to make the most of their trip: from surfing and snorkeling off the southern coast of the country, to shopping and trying delicious local food in the cities, to getting up close with South Africa’s Big Five animals on a national park safari, there is so much that you can do to enjoy your trip and make a positive impact.
Dedicating a year that you have taken off from school or just your everyday life to helping others is one of the most rewarding experiences that you can have. You will not only learn so much about the culture you are immersing yourself in, but you will learn a great deal about yourself. You will fall in love with the joyful children and their grateful parents. You will cherish the wildlife that you helped to save from poachers and pollution. You will learn new skills and further the work of local NGOs. You will look at life a little differently.
So are you ready to try something new?
9 Great Gap Year Programs In South Africa
Plan My Gap Year
Since 2011, Plan My Gap Year has offered affordable trips for students who want to go abroad for programs in teaching, conservation, community building, and much more throughout Africa and Asia. PMGY prides itself on transparency and accountability, with all of it projects personally inspected and vetted by the PMGY team to ensure they are safe and to be certain that you will be matched with a program complementing your skills and interests. And with recognition such as the Shell LiveWire Grand Idea Award, Thailand Green Excellence Award, and Special Recognition from the United Nations in Sri Lanka, Plan My Gap Year is an excellent way to make a difference on a sustainable initiative.
South Africa Big 5 Wildlife Experience
From two weeks to three months during your gap year, PMGY invites you to visit the world-class Kwantu Private Game Reserve in South Africa, where you will get up close with elephants, lions, rhinos and other amazing animals comprising the country’s Big Five. Based on the Eastern Cape, this 6,000-hectare reserve is home to some of the world’s most exotic creatures and works every day to preserve the environment that they live in. The reserve also operates an endangered predator breeding program to ensure the survival of species whose habitats and food sources have been encroached on by humans. A few ways that you can help during your volunteer experience include assisting with a local school outreach program, caring for animals at the reserve, monitoring lion prey selection, cataloguing bird species, working with a conservation management program, and more. This program starts from $435 plus a $249 registration fee for your first two weeks in South Africa – learn more and sign up here!
As one of the fastest-growing volunteer abroad organizations you can join right now, Love Volunteers is a great choice for students who want to take a meaningful gap year overseas. Since 2009, Love Volunteers has sent more than 20,000 travelers on adventurous service projects to Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. And your experience with Love Volunteers will be incredibly affordable: depending on the project you sign up for during your gap year in South Africa, your first two weeks of volunteering abroad start from just $449.
Animal Rescue Volunteering
Calling all animal lovers! Love Volunteers is offering an animal rescue volunteer program in Imizamo Yethu Township, South Africa. In this area, most of the 40,000 residents live in extreme poverty, which means there is also a large issue with stray animals and abandoned pets. Through this volunteer project, you will have the opportunity to help rescue and rehabilitate these animals who have been neglected and left to their own devices to survive. The Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre that you will be working with is a nonprofit organization that cares for abandoned, feral, and injured cats and dogs by rescuing, treating, sterilizing, and finding new homes for them.
During your stay, you will assist in a variety of projects throughout the shelter, as they can only afford a few permanent staff members. Some of your tasks can include:
- Cleaning and maintaining animal housing areas
- Walking dogs
- Feeding the animals
- Playing with the animals
- Helping out with fundraising events
It is your job to help make the animals in the shelter feel as comfortable as possible and to get them used to human contact again so they can more easily find their forever homes.
You can expect to work four to six hours a day with lots of time to explore the area and learn about the culture. You will be staying at one of two volunteer houses with up to 30 other volunteers – you may also request to stay with a host family. This project runs year-round and starts from two weeks at $449. Learn more and apply here!
Environmental Conservation Volunteering
If you want to focus more on the environment during your gap year volunteer program, then Love Volunteers’ environmental conservation trip to Cape Town might be more suited to you. This project is meant to help preserve the wonderful beauty of Cape Town, where you will perform hands-on conservation work. You will help to preserve the local parks and reserves while educating the locals on the importance of conserving their environment.
As a volunteer you will help in research, conservation, and educational projects that will be different every day depending on what’s needed the most at the time. Some of the tasks that you will be able to assist with include:
- Helping with path clearing
- Removing alien vegetation
- Facilitating awareness and educational programs
- Assisting with research projects such as counting animals
These programs rely heavily on assistance from volunteers like you, as they do not have enough staff to ensure the environment and local area stays healthy and clean for years to come. You play a very important role as you work on these various tasks and help to educate the community on how to contribute to keeping their land beautiful. This program starts from $449 for your first two weeks abroad, and you’re invited to stay for three months – learn more and sign up here!
For more than 25 years, Projects Abroad has offered volunteer abroad programs and internships overseas perfect for gap year travelers. As one of the world’s largest volunteer organizations, Projects Abroad sends more than 10,000 volunteers each year to Africa, Asia, Europe, the South Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean.
Volunteer in South Africa with Projects Abroad and spend your gap year contributing to sustainable community development. Alternatively, you can join an internship in South Africa to gain experience before starting your studies. South Africa has a difficult past. This continues to affect the country, with widespread poverty and inequality in many South African communities. You can play a role in addressing social challenges by improving access to education and promoting early childhood development. You can also encourage healthy lifestyles or work alongside lawyers at legal clinics.
Projects in South Africa are based in vibrant Cape Town. This cosmopolitan city has plenty of attractions for you to explore during your free time, from bustling markets to bicycle rides along the promenade. And no trip to Cape Town would be complete without a trip up Table Mountain.
Surfing Project in South Africa
Are you a beach lover? Projects Abroad’s Surfing Program in South Africa is the perfect way to combine your love for the ocean with making a difference. As a volunteer, you’ll assist with coaching children and teens from disadvantaged communities. You will help encourage perseverance and teamwork, while building their confidence. Classes are also a great way for young surfers to improve their technique and have fun!
You’ll mainly be based in Muizenberg, a small beach-side suburb of Cape Town that many consider the birthplace of surfing in South Africa! For the duration of your internship, you will be staying with a local host family. The pricing for this amazing opportunity begins at $2,770 for two weeks – learn more and register here!
Law & Human Rights Internship in South Africa
Gain practical legal experience during your gap year on Projects Abroad’s Law and Human Rights internship in South Africa. You’ll work closely with qualified legal professionals, helping them promote human rights for all. As an intern, these are some of the tasks you’ll do:
- Shadow lawyers during consultations with clients
- Help with research and drafting legal documentation
- Attend hearings to gain first-hand experience in a courtroom
- Run a moot court to practice your skills
- Raise human rights awareness by running workshops and giving presentations
You’ll live and work in Cape Town, and stay with a local host family. There is plenty to see and do in your free time, and program fees begin at $3,400 for two weeks ($4,260 for four weeks). Apply here!
International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ)
International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) is an excellent resource for students and young adults to volunteer abroad on their gap year. Since 2007, IVHQ has placed more than 76,000 travelers on impactful and affordable projects in dozens of countries all over the world. With an emphasis on sustainability and safety, IVHQ partners with local organizations to host volunteers of a wide variety of projects that can range from wildlife and animal care, to teaching, to sports coaching, and so much more. Right now, IVHQ is offering several different volunteer programs perfect for a gap year in South Africa, where you can surf, get involved in conservation efforts, teach IT skills, and lots more.
Surf, Skate and Swim
Based in Table View, South Africa, International Volunteer HQ is here to give you an amazing and impactful experience as you spend part of your gap year working with children in an after-school program. This wonderful program supports children between 10 to 16 years old from low-income families. Through your efforts, you can help kids stay off the streets through fun activities and encourage them to stay in school and excel in their classes: in order to participate in after-school fun, children must not only attend school every day, but also behave and study hard.
On this trip, you and your fellow volunteers will work together to teach children how to swim and inform them of water safety. For those children who already know how to swim, you can help teach them how to surf and how to skateboard. You personally do not need to learn how to surf or skate, but in order to sign up for this program, you must be a competent swimmer. That being said, if you do not know how to surf or skate, you will have the opportunity to take one lesson each week by the local instructor for free, and you can pay for additional lessons if you choose.
Since this project takes place in the afternoon, you will spend your mornings either taking your personal lessons, or aiding in IVHQ’s South African kindergarten project, where you will support teachers with their daily activities. This program is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and the beautiful waters of South Africa as you work with children and see their faces light up as they learn a new skill and have fun in a safe environment.
This trip starts from one week at $265, and you are welcome to stay up to six months to gain the most from your gap year and make the biggest impact you can – learn more and sign up here!
Special Needs Care
If you are someone who is working towards a career with those with special needs or just want to help give children the care they deserve, then IVHQ’s special needs care project in South Africa is the perfect gap year experience for you.
As a volunteer on this program, you will work at a local community center to provide education and care for children with special needs and from low-income families in need of extra assistance. The children who come to this center do not have the opportunity to get the education and care they deserve, so your time at the center will be incredibly meaningful and appreciated. The children you’ll work with range in age from 18 months to 18 years old, and have varying disabilities that range from mild physical and mental disorders to more severe conditions such as cerebral palsy. All of these children deserve the care and education they cannot otherwise get without volunteers like you.
Some of your tasks as a volunteer will include:
- One-on-one classroom assistance
- Teaching classes
- Mind stimulation
- Running developmental activities
- Assisting with feeding programs
- Helping with physiotherapy routines
You do not need to have any qualifications or experience working with children with disabilities, but you do need to commit to the program for a minimum of three weeks. As with the surf, skate, and swim volunteer program in South Africa, this trip starts from one week at $265, and you are invited to stay up to 24 weeks. Learn more and register here!
Global Vision International (GVI)
Global Vision International (GVI) offers a wide variety of meaningful volunteer and intern abroad programs worldwide, with nearly 20 different trips to South Africa. More than 24,000 volunteers have traveled with GVI all over the world since its founding in 1998 to provide support for initiatives including education, conservation, child care, research, and much more. This award-winning organization partners with NGOs large and small across many different program sectors to provide the best possible solutions with help from volunteers and interns like you.
Volunteer with Children
GVI is currently offering a two-week to three-month program where you can volunteer with children in South Africa – a great opportunity for anyone looking to make a difference during their gap year. On this trip, you can help children of Cape Town enhance their education through games and arts and crafts. Although Cape Town is thriving in culture and history, it is filled with poverty and uneducated adults and children, and your assistance is needed to help ensure that the local children are given the education they deserve in a safe and fun way through games, songs, dances and crafts. Your weekdays will run like a traditional school day of classes from 9:00am to 4:00pm, with an hour for lunch, and weekends free to get to know the community, explore the surrounding areas, and embrace the South African culture.
For many children, being able to learn English can open up a whole world of opportunities for them in the future, as English is considered the language of business. Children in South Africa must also meet a certain level academically to attend school formally, so it is up to you and other volunteers to help them reach that level. You will not only help the children to learn English, but also help them better develop fine and gross motor skills. Having fun with the children is also important as you work on these skills through outdoor activities, telling stories, and performing dramatic arts. Resources are basic and limited, but there will be art materials and games at your disposal.
You will stay in houses or apartments with shared rooms with other volunteers – the cost of this program starts at $2,090 for two weeks. Learn more and sign up here!
Wildlife Conservation Internship
If working with animals is more suited to your way of life and you are looking to hone your wildlife knowledge and conservation skills, then this 24-week internship with GVI is the perfect gap year for you! Based in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, you will work closely with lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalo, better known at the “Big Five” of South Africa.
For the first half of your internship, you will be focused on helping with research and learning different conservation techniques. The qualifications you will earn by the end of your internship in tracking animals through bush skills and telemetry equipment are internationally recognized, and will allow you to enhance your education or career in conservation.
Once you complete the research and tracking portion of the internship, you will be prepared for your work placement. You will most likely be placed with a local conservation organization, game reserve, or lodge where you will continue to learn with the GVI team, put your skills to the test, and work in a professional setting. Some of your tasks may include:
- Detailed monitoring of the “Big Five” species
- Monitoring and tracking food sources
- Observing and restoring habitats
- Assisting with community outreach about the importance of conservation
During the first half of the internship you will be staying in an old farmhouse with other volunteers, and then once you have your work placement you will be moved to other accommodations that are basic but comfortable. This internship in South Africa costs $9,495 for the full 24 weeks – learn more and sign up here!
Agape Volunteers is another excellent organization that offers volunteer programs for travelers who want to take a gap year in South Africa. Some of the volunteer programs you can sign up for throughout Africa include teaching, music, wildlife conservation, HIV/AIDS support, medical care, and more. When you volunteer with Agape in South Africa, you can stay for two weeks or longer on their wildlife conservation project.
Wildlife Conservation Program
Agape Volunteers is currently only offering a wildlife conservation program in South Africa, where you will have the opportunity to work with the local community to protect native wildlife through animal monitoring, anti-poaching projects, and park management. Each project on this trip offers a unique experience for you to help a variety of South African animals and protect them from harm for years to come. As a volunteer, you will track the movements and behaviors of different animals to keep track of the amount of each species in the area. You also will be able to assist in an anti-poaching project, where you will look for suspicious tracks and report low-flying aircrafts. As well, you can expect to help with alien plant removal, road restoration, and bush cleaning to keep all of the animal and plant life healthy.
During your stay, you will live in a refurbished farmhouse with other volunteers – this program starts from about $1690 for your first two weeks, and you’re invited to stay up to three months in South Africa. Learn more and apply here!
If you are looking for a unique, exotic volunteer experience that’s off the beaten path, check out what Fronteering has to offer. With volunteer and internship projects available in 14 different countries, Fronteering offers impactful programs for travelers who want to visit unspoiled locations and make a difference in environmental conservation, wildlife research, indigenous communities, and more. If you want to visit South Africa for your gap year, Fronteering offers several different opportunities, including sports coaching, forest and coastal conservation, shark research, whale conservation, and more.
Whale Conservation Volunteering
If you want to get an adventurous and hands-on volunteering experience during your gap year, then Fronteering has the perfect trip for you! Through this whale conservation experience, you will have the incredible chance to expand your knowledge in marine conservation, teach local children about the importance of keeping the ocean clean, and much more. As a member of this project, you will research whales and dolphins, and work on ocean conservation initiatives. A few of the tasks you’ll take on include the following:
- Assisting with coastal conservation and marine research
- Recording daily sightings of the various species of whales and dolphins
- Recording recurring visits and/or migratory habits
- Educating the local children about conservation
- Acting as a crew member on the boat and helping with guiding
During this trip, you will live in a shared house with your fellow volunteers in Knysna, South Africa – and during your free time, you will have the chance to enjoy the local restaurants and go exploring. You can expect to work Monday through Thursday, with a half-day on Friday, and will be paired with five other volunteers. This program starts from two weeks at $1,595, with longer stays available on request – learn more and apply here!
Pre-School Teaching and Enrichment Program
Are you an aspiring teacher looking for a way to combine your gap year with gaining experience teaching children? Then this volunteer program is for you! Based in Knysna, South Africa, this program invites you to teach pre-schoolers between six months and six years old.
As a volunteer, you will learn and work alongside local teachers to help the children get a head start on building a bright future. Most of these children come from underprivileged and impoverished families, and often would not have opportunities for further education and career prospects later if not for the dedication of teachers and volunteers like you. A few of your responsibilities on this program may include:
- Assisting with pre-school teaching and school enrichment
- Supporting the teachers with their day-to-day work in any way that you can
- Providing new skills to the teachers so they can provide higher-quality education
- Helping to improve literacy and numeracy skills among the children
- Ensuring that the schools are a safe and inspiring place through renovations and maintenance
During your stay, you will live in a local volunteer house – you should expect to work Monday through Thursday each week, with a half-day on Friday, with time during the weekends free to explore or just relax. This program starts from two weeks at $1,495, and you’re invited to stay up to six weeks – learn more and sign up here!
For more than 25 years, Frontier has combined community development, capacity building, ecosystem protection, economic growth, and the development of civil society through collaboration between local communities, researchers, and volunteers. From their first program in Tanzania – a marine park that’s still operating today, developed in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund – Frontier has since expanded to offer more than 400 projects in 72 countries all over the world. As a nonprofit scientific research organization, Frontier offers lots of amazing opportunities for travelers to take internships abroad, embark on volunteer trips, enjoy a gap year overseas, and even teach abroad. Right now, Frontier is offering nearly 30 different volunteer programs and internships for your gap year in South Africa.
Sports Coaching Volunteering
For all of you athletes, Frontier has a great gap year program where you can travel to South Africa and coach sports and be a mentor to children. South Africa is well known for its sporting activities and you can be a part keeping that culture alive as you work with the young children of Port Elizabeth in “Rainbow Nation.” In order to work with these children, generally aged nine to 16, you will run training clinics and matches and work with the kids on their skills both in and out of school. Most of these families do not have the money to spend on nice sporting equipment, so you are giving these children an amazing opportunity they may not otherwise have.
While you may be focused on sports, you are also giving these children so much more: as a volunteer, you will be inspiring them to reach for goals, teaching life skills, and showing them an active and healthy lifestyle that they can continue to pass on to future generations. You will be a coach to these kids during the weekdays, with lots of time on the weekends to explore and immerse yourself in South African culture. It does not matter if you’re a school athlete or a pick-up game player – your interest in sports and encouraging children to build bright futures is all you need to be a part of this project.
During your gap year trip to South Africa, you will live in a shared house with your fellow volunteers. This program starts from five weeks at $2,495, and you’re invited to stay up to three months or longer to make the best impact that you can during your experience. Learn more and apply here!
Naturally Africa Volunteers
Naturally Africa Volunteers is another excellent organization to check out if you want to visit South Africa during your gap year. With impactful volunteer programs that match your skills to local community initiatives, Naturally Africa Volunteers offers a variety of trips throughout Africa lasting two weeks to three months. Right now, this organization is offering several different volunteer trips perfect for gap year travelers in South Africa, ranging from childcare, to teaching, to veterinary assistance, and much more.
Professional Field Guide Program
Looking to spend an entire year on your gap year in South Africa? Check out Naturally Africa Volunteers’ Professional Field Guide program, where you can spend a full 12 months learning and teaching about safaris and the environment and wildlife you’ll meet on them. This program is broken into two parts: for the first half of the year, you will focus on a course covering the ecosystems, landscapes, and wildlife that inhabit the local South African safaris.
Once you have completed the first half of your program, you will be placed at a lodge, where you will work with experienced guides as you become comprehensively qualified accredited by the Culture, Art, Tourism, Hospitality, and Sport Sector Education and Training Authority (CATHSSETA) and endorsed by the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA). The subjects that you will be learning about include:
- Intro to guiding in the natural environment
- Basic bush and survival skills
- Basic ecology
- Basic taxonomy
- Mammals, reptiles, fish, and birds
- Animal behavior
- Tracks and tracking
- Approaching dangerous game animals
- Night drives
There are four camps that you have the potential to work with during your stay in South Africa: Makuleke (Northern Kruger National Park), Karongwe Game Reserve, Selati Game Reserve, or Mashatu Game Reserve. Whichever camp you are placed at will also be your accommodation for the duration of your course. Upon course completion, you may graduate with the following qualifications: FGASA Field Guide Level 1; FGASA Trails Guide Back Up; Firearm Proficiency Certificate; Advanced Rifle Handling; Animal Tracks and Tracking; Birding; Wilderness Medicine: Level 1 & 2 and Navigation and Orientation. Learn more and sign up here!
Are You Ready to Travel?
With so many different gap year travel opportunities waiting for you in South Africa, you are bound to find the right journey for you while taking a break from school. Each of these amazing volunteer and intern abroad opportunities will give you the chance to enhance the skills you already have, or learn new ones that you never thought you could. During your gap year, you can have the amazing opportunity to challenge yourself while making a difference in the lives of many people and in the communities they call home.
So what are you waiting for? Find the project that right for you and apply!
If you need more information on gap years and other opportunities available to you, please check out these other articles:
Gap Year Travel Abroad Programs, Projects, Internships, and Experiences
Volunteer Programs and Projects in South Africa
Jordyn Hotchkiss · Guest Writer
Jordyn Hotchkiss is a Guest Volunteer Travel Writer for Volunteer Forever.